CDs, Concerts Are in the Mix Aboveground
By CHRIS BURRELL
When Mike Mackey informed his boss Wednesday that he was going to a Foo Fighters concert and would be late to work the next day, he probably knew he wasn't going out on a limb.
At most any other workplace, such a declaration might brand the employee a slacker, but at Aboveground Records in Edgartown, store owner Michael Barnes lives - and works - by a whole different set of standards.
"That's okay," he told his 19-year-old staffer. "We support the rock."
Not that a record store should have a philosophy, but Mr. Barnes' simple response - stated with a grin - kind of sums up an attitude and an approach that has created a unique store on the Vineyard.
The place is more than just laid-back. Mr. Barnes happily calls it a clubhouse, but even that label falls short. Yes, customers come in and hang out. And yes, up above the CDs and vinyl, the shelves hold dozens of Star Wars figures, a bust of Elvis, a half-eaten bag of barbecue potato chips and a snapshot of Mr. Barnes' two-year-old son, Henry.
But those are just the physical trappings. The real scene has to be heard - and not just in the music. Underneath the tunes playing from the store stereo system is the conversation, the banter and a friendly vibe that makes you feel like you've walked on the set of some homegrown, late-night talk show.
And like a talk show, Aboveground Records actually wields some power. This month alone, Mr. Barnes and his manager, Chris Liberato, have helped produce two rock concerts, one of them in the parking lot outside the store and the other at the Atlantic Connection in Oak Bluffs.
The show at the Atlantic Connection last Friday night teamed up the prolific Island band Kahoots with a Baltimore group called The Oranges, playing "high-energy pop punk," as Mr. Liberato put it.
"I could have brought that band on my own and might have gotten 75 people, but with [their] support, we brought in 150 people," says Michael Santoro, the manager at the AC. "That goes a long way for how Mike is respected on the Island. I wouldn't have taken a chance otherwise."
The duo at Aboveground plans to put on more concerts this summer, both at the Atlantic Connection and at Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs. Their motivation is clearly born out of frustration with the dominant Island music scene, which they say is often over-priced and seriously outdated when it comes to admission prices and the acts that are consistently booked.
It's a matter of numbers. Do you want to pay $22 to see a band "who was kind of good ten years ago?" asks Mr. Barnes. "There are a lot of people who like current rock music on the Island who want to go to a cheap show," he adds.
Mr. Barnes proudly points to the cover charge at last Friday's show - $5. Musicians from The Oranges slept on couches back at his house in Vineyard Haven and used much of Kahoots' equipment.
Producing shows isn't making Aboveground Records any richer, says Mr. Barnes, but they are definitely having fun in the process. That same enthusiasm can be felt when you hear Mr. Barnes and Mr. Liberato talk about the pop music being produced by Islanders. They clearly have their favorites.
Mr. Barnes, who opened Aboveground almost eight years ago when he was just 21, can still remember when he had his first taste of Kahoots. That encounter started because one of the lead songwriters, Elisha Wiesner, was hanging in his store, playing the Pac-Man video game that used to have a home in the shop.
"I got [their album] New Speed of Sound, and I freaked out," says Mr. Barnes. "They're still my favorite band."
On Wednesday, one of the members of the now-defunct Angry Custodians came in and bought some CDs. When he walked out, Mr. Barnes couldn't help but reminisce back to his early days when those guys were only teenagers.
"One of them was just 14 years old," says Mr. Barnes. "I said I have a four-track. I'll come and record you if you want. It was this raw, really cool thing."
Now, Mr. Liberato, who is 25, raves about a new band made up of students from the regional high school called Loops. "They're not afraid to do something unusual," he says.
"The high school bands are really good now," says Mr. Barnes. "When I was in high school, we played cover songs, and it was really lame."
Mr. Barnes admits he likes living vicariously through the bands that are somehow connected to his store. "I get a charge out of it. Part of it's like living the dream. There's nothing I'd rather do than be in band," he says.
But the affinity for the Island's young rock musicians also seems to pay off in the store. "The more music being played helps the scene and helps the record store," he says.
Even his young clerk, Mr. Mackey, fits the mold. He's the bass player in Slow Leslie, a popular band that came out of the high school. And with the right customer, Mr. Mackey makes the ideal salesman.
This week, Mr. Mackey got to help out his band's drummer, Sam Mason, who wandered in after school. "You got any recommendations?" Mr. Mason asks.
"What are you in the mood for, something chill? You know Massive Attack?" he says and then walks over to pop in the CD, filling the store with a heavy bass and raspy vocals.
Minutes later, Mr. Mason - also the drummer in Loops - is laying out the cash for two CDs and telling Mr. Barnes to thank Chris for his latest tip.
Mr. Barnes knows most customers by first name, and he chastises himself when he can't remember a name. Michael Barnes also has a gift for gabbing with the customers. He's ready with jokes and happy greetings, urging his friends to call in sick to work or thinking about telling them that he's installed a live webcam in the eyes of Elvis up on the shelf.
He credits his father - the legendary trucker, mover and auctioneer Clarence (Tripp) Barnes - with passing along the extrovert genes. "My ability to talk very much came from my father," he says "My whole life on the boat we would hang out in the lunchroom, and he would talk to everybody. It's a show. It definitely can become a show."
There are few rules on the show. They don't sell edited albums, and they would prefer if customers didn't ask them what they think of the Sally Taylor album.
There are also few lulls in a day at Aboveground. There's his Mom, Judy Cronig, who comes in sometime around noon and gets a hug. "She tracks everything and knows when it's safe to buy things and when it's not," he says.
The cash register keeps on ringing, and Mr. Barnes admits he's not worrying about the bottom line anymore. In a typical day, they are restocking the shelves with up to 400 CDs a day. A solid 10 per cent of the business now comes from selling vinyl records.
The key is honesty and no pressure. "This isn't the business where you want to get stuff sold to you," he says.
"Chris is awesome. He knows all that German minimal stuff," says Vineyard deejay Diana Reilly. "I go in there, and I know I'm talking to people who really love music. They're completely straight up."