A few hundred industry folks and music fans convened on World Café Live at the Queen Thursday night for the opening day of the NON-COMMvention.

It’s the non-commercial/independent radio’s annual industry convention, and it’s a pretty cool one at that. Suits are swapped for jeans and snap shirts and board meetings are replaced with live music performances.

UPDATED after Friday's performances.

A few hundred industry folks and music fans convened on World Café Live at the Queen in Wilmington Thursday night for the opening day of the NON-COMMvention.

It’s the non-commercial/independent radio’s annual industry convention, and it’s a pretty cool one at that. Suits are swapped for jeans and snap shirts and board meetings are replaced with live music performances.

The three-day convention continues Friday and wraps up Saturday afternoon.

The convention represents far and away the biggest event to hit the Queen since the historic theater reopened as World Café Live earlier this spring. And frankly it showed. The Thursday lineup was juggled with little predictability or communication and if you had a favorite performer playing in the venue’s cramped upstairs space, you were out of luck unless you were willing to camp out there during main stage acts.

To be fair though, it’s a minor and correctable issue and should in no way overshadow the remarkable work done to rehab what just a year ago was a crumbling, dilapidated eyesore into a world-class performance space with pristine sound and sightlines.

So that the lineup Thursday was less-than-impressive almost didn’t matter, as people were there to “see” and “hear” the restored theater as much as the bands themselves.

Pesky newspaper deadlines kept me from the afternoon showcases, which included an interview with Band founder Robbie Robertson, but I lasted for the whole evening of music, and observed the following:

The Good

Sonic Youth founder Thurston Moore was, for me, Thursday’s big draw. In front of an industry always looking towards the next cool thing, it was this post-punk veteran that really stood out. Moore and his newly assembled band – he remarked this was their first ever show together – offered up a solid batch of songs from his new solo effort “Demolished Thoughts.” As I watched Moore pluck away on his 12-string guitar backed by the ethereal sounds of harp and violin, I realized something about his music that I always knew intuitively but had never been able to articulate before. It’s agnostic. There are not happy chords or sad chords. There are not pop songs or ballads. There is music. Oftentimes delivered in a wall of sound that even when deconstructed into individual elements leaves the listener interpreting but concluding very little. Lush and sparse. Pristine and polluted. Simple and complicated. After three decades, Moore has as much to offer American music as he ever has.

The Bad

We all can agree that AAA/independent radio is a vast improvement over the rinse, wash, repeat folks at the commercial stations that dominate the dial. But as much as I like the idea that pot-smoking 50-somethings are eschewing the corporate structure in favor of alternative radio, the fact remains that these are the folks still spinning Jackson Browne records all too often. What does that mean? It means that at times, they forget about rock n’ roll. Thursday’s lineup was replete with artists who, while no doubt talented, didn’t offer up much that we haven’t already heard.

Over the Rhine, after 20 years, is still churning out the same brooding but sleepy jazz-based sound that are nothing if not an prime example of why kids aren’t listening to their parents’ records anymore. And up-and-comers like The Head & the Heart and Matt Nathanson are vocally-focused pop musicians whose music, to be blunt, is awfully uninteresting. The focus here is too heavily weighted to high-harmonies and hand-claps. At times it seems these bands forget they are equipped with expensive instruments that when played simultaneously and with some fervor are capable of producing interesting sounds.

The Refreshing

I am not a fan of folk music. I am a fan of protest music. Give me Woody Guthrie, but hold the Peter and Paul and Mary. So when a barefoot Todd Snider took to the stage Thursday looking like Scooby Doo’s Shaggy if he were instead cast as a migrant worker in a Steinbeck book, I raised an eyebrow. And then he made the following decree:

“I’m not going to share my opinions with you because I want you to know them or because I think I’m smart, I’m going to share them with you because they rhyme.”

And with that, he had disarmed all of us and then delivered a half-hour of irreverent, blunt and forceful songs that ripped everything from formal education to the religious right to over-protective parents. And it was wonderful. Wonderful because the “folk” genre has been so devoid of singers like Snider, who are caustic and brash and unafraid to offend. It’s a scene dominated by pacifists. And I don’t mean anti-war people, I mean anti-conflict people; twirling hemp skirts wishing it were still the 60s and we could all just join hands. But folk music is nothing if not political, and sometimes blame needs to be leveled and heads have to roll. Thankfully, there’s a Todd Snider still manning the guillotine.


The Good

Credit is due to Ben Harper for taking things up a notch Friday afternoon. He and his band opened day two of the event with some blistering guitar work. And then he kept it going. I was a casual Ben Harper fan in high school and always fancied him a darn good guitar player, but he fell out of favor for me when he started heading down the beach rock road once Jack Johnson got it paved with gold.

Needless to say, I was pleased to hear what for me, felt like a return to form.

And then really, what is there to say about Raphael Saadiq that hasn’t been said? He and his wonderful band embody joy while on stage. And in an era where R&B music has been relegated to what’s essentially the same song about love-making played over BET music videos of scantily-clad women pool-side, we’re damn lucky to have Saadiq keeping us connected to that genre’s heyday.

The Sad

Sorry, Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst) but I just couldn’t justify spending my final night before the Rapture contemplating killing myself, so I left halfway through his set. This is frighteningly depressing music. At least the energy of his band is enough to at times mask all the darkness, but this was just Oberst and a keyboard player. Gut-wrenching and heart-breaking had progressed to misery.

Many song-writing friends fawn over Oberst’s words, and I’m not one to argue. By any objective standard, he’s among the best at weaving together imagery many of us could never even consider capturing in song. So no unnecessary shots are warranted at the man or his craft, it just isn’t for everyone.

The Ugly

Wilmington-based New Sweden is creating some serious buzz, and they’re doing it organically – playing the right gigs, writing literate, energetic Americana songs, and kindly smiling when person after person approaches them after gigs and compares them to the Avett Brothers.

Before Justin Townes Earle’s short but exceptional set Friday night, one New Sweden band member I won’t out here was eagerly awaiting Earle’s set when he was approached by that loud-mouthed, beer-swilling character we’ve all encountered at concerts. Every rock club has one – the guy that knows everyone, has a friend who knows everyone and is full of unsolicited advice.

This character claims to have been the Avett’s first manager, “before they made it big.” His advice to New Sweden? Do everything the Avett’s do. Jump around more spastically, become more harmony-focused and bring a kick drum on stage to bang on at random, because Avett crowds just can’t get enough of it.

I won’t question this guy’s truthfulness about his résumé. After all, it’s perfectly believable a band’s successful period would coincide with this guy’s departure. More significantly though – aside from his lack of tact – his advice was terrible.

New Sweden will succeed based on the quality of their songs, their hard work on the touring circuit and most of all, by being themselves. Music fans are smart. They don’t want copy-cats, they want the genuine article. New Sweden is certainly that.

The band member in question could not have been more polite, gracefully listening to what seemed like 20 minutes of utter obnoxiousness. Full marks to him for that. Lets just hope nothing comes of the conversation.

Jesse Chadderdon is the city editor for the Dover Post.