Sponging up local musical talent

Ben Parent, center, in chair, has started a new record label called Good Sponge. Parent, leader of the Rivergods, is seen at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford on Tuesday with members of the Rivergods, John Fries and the Heat, Lauren Agnelli, Chris Mackay and the Tone Shifters, the Sue Menhart Band, Dirt Road Radio, Monkey 68, Anne Castellano and The Smoke, and the Franklin Brothers, who will all perform tonight at the center.
Ben Parent, center, in chair, has started a new record label called Good Sponge. Parent, leader of the Rivergods, is seen at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford on Tuesday with members of the Rivergods, John Fries and the Heat, Lauren Agnelli, Chris Mackay and the Tone Shifters, the Sue Menhart Band, Dirt Road Radio, Monkey 68, Anne Castellano and The Smoke, and the Franklin Brothers, who will all perform tonight at the center. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

Anyone venturing into area music clubs recently can attest to the fact that it's been raining roots and Americana.

Fortunately, Ben Parent has an umbrella.

More to the point, Parent, leader of the local alt-country band the Rivergods and co-founder of the songerwriter-in-the-round series called the Sinners Circle, has started Good Sponge Records. It's an outfit that combines marketing and product distribution for area roots artists and, though this includes signing acts and recording and distributing their EPs and CDs, Parent is hesitant to call Good Sponge a label per se.

"I prefer to say it's an umbrella," Parent says. "It is a label, but it's a philosophy and a way of doing business beyond just recording albums and putting them out."

Good Sponge actually started as a vehicle for Parent to release and distribute the Rivergods' 2011 album, "Signs." Shortly thereafter, he released "Vision of Angels," a single by his wife and fellow Rivergod member, Nancy Brossard-Parent, and then an EP by the blues-rock oriented Sue Menhart Band.

A celebration of the "umbrella" takes place tonight with a release party for "The Good Sponge Sampler, Volume 1," which features 15 tracks from Americana acts across the region.

It takes place at Waterford's Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, and most of the artists on the sampler will perform on one of the two live music stages.

Included on the album are John Fries & the Heat, the Rivergods, Chris MacKay & the ToneShifters, Nancy Parent and Hugh Birdsall, Dogbite, Vince Tuckwood, the Sue Menhart Band, Dirt Road Radio, Amalgamated Duck, Anne Castellano & the Smoke, Kevin Salley, Lauren Agnelli & Dave Rave, and the Franklin Brothers.

Most of those acts are officially affiliating with Good Sponge, and plans are each will release EPs or full-length CDs for the label in 2012.

Parent's blueprint is a fusion of music industry strategies ranging from old school major label-style elements to marketing and distribution angles that morph and expand daily through social media.

His career as a Rivergod spanned the precise time period when a) roots music became a respected and popular genre beyond anything previous, and b) independent and DIY music exploded as artists started taking control of their own careers in defiance of outdated or restrictive major label practices.

"I learned a lot dealing with all of that," Parent says. The Rivergods are now comfortably entrenched as local artists, and Parent and Brossard-Parent are indeed parents to two children.

But there was a time when they pursued national stardom as a bigger priority, and the lessons gleaned over the years had a profound effect.

Simply expressed, Good Sponge works on a project-by-project basis. Initial sales goals are realistic but ambitious - maybe start out trying to move a few hundred copies - and, using Parent's design skills and marketing connections, the hope is to create a ripple effect for each band and recording through a co-op spirit.

"There's a lot of overlap of talent," Parent says. "We're all friends and have played together. At the same time, a lot of these artists have other skills and connections, too, and we pool resources. We share resources and try to use available options."

For example, Lauren Agnelli and Matthew Male of Amalgamated Muck run the Small Town Concert Series and promote live music in such venues as Old Saybrook's Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center and the Chester Meeting House. Similarly, Carl Franklin's PWOP Studio is a world-class facility where some of the Good Sponge recording sessions have taken place.

Good Sponge isn't the first local label to consciously target a broad talent pool. For years, Rich Martin's Cosmodemonic Telegraph tapped into the area indie rock scene, releasing albums, singles, EPs and compilations that earned national sales and radio airplay. More recently, Cosmodemonic Telegraph has expanded and included bands performing in a variety of styles.

Good Sponge, Parent says, will stay more stylistically focused in the roots arena, but he points out that a variety of genres in that parameter - from blues, folk and rockabilly to bluegrass, honky tonk and alt-country - are pretty diverse.

"I became a fan of Good Sponge when they started and released Nancy's and Sue's projects," says Chris MacKay of the ToneShifters. Parent soon contacted MacKay to see if the ToneShifters were interested in the Good Sponge compilation. Since the band already had some recorded, unreleased material, they jumped at the chance. "We loved the idea of exposure and bands working together for a common goal, and it's worked out perfectly for us. It's incredible how quickly and organized the whole project has been."

While guitarist John Fries and his band, the Heat, maintain their independent stature and will shortly release their own EP, the idea of local labels is something he supports. Fries and the Heat had positive experiences when they released material for Cosmodemonic Telegraph, and are happy to have a tune on the Good Sponge compilation.

"It's cool to see Ben take this on," Fries says. "He's done quite a bit of work helping people out - he's done CD art and flyers for me on a number of occasions - and it seems like Good Sponge is an extension of that, to help support local artists and get music out."

Parent is cautiously optimistic and says, "It's possible to reach a huge national audience and still stay local. In the old, major label business model, for a band from this area to make it, you'd have to get out of here and head for New York or L.A. You can do it differently now. We're not overpromising anything, and it's a lot of work - but, man, it's the sort of work that's really fun to do."

IF YOU GO

WHAT: CD Celebration for "The Good Sponge Sampler, Volume 1"

WHO: John Fries & the Heat, the Rivergods, Chris MacKay & the ToneShifters, Nancy Parent and Hugh Birdsall, Dogbite, Vince Tuckwood, the Sue Menhart Band, Dirt Road Radio, Amalgamated Duck, Anne Castellano & the Smoke, Kevin Salley, Lauren Agnelli & Dave Rave and the Franklin Brothers. Steve Elci emcees.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Rose Barn Theater, Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford

HOW MUCH: $10 suggested donation

CAN YOU BUY THE SAMPLER THERE? Yes, along with previous releases and merch by Good Sponge artists. Beer and wine are also available for purchase.

INFORMATION: goodsponge.com

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