Dispatches from Suburbia: Miami’s Design District

While my first night back in South Florida took me to West Palm Beach, my second found me in the opposite direction, deep in Miami’s Design District. The neighborhood is across Biscayne Bay from South Beach, and gentrification has spawned over a hundred galleries, showrooms, boutiques, and eateries in a formerly run-down section of downtown Miami.

The first stop of the night was the Wynwood Social Club, a mixed-use arts venue, for acoustic duo Raffa and Rainer’s album release party. The Wynwood has an open, community room vibe, with local art on the walls and found furniture throughout; I enjoyed the show from a PanAm airplane seat. Opening the show was (not that) Danielle Steele, a singer-songwriter not even out of high school, with a quirky sound that evokes Regina Spektor. Next up was scene veteran (not that) Jesse Jackson, who played a combination of banjo, ukulele, and harmonica in a short set that found him covering both Elton John and James Taylor; standout number “If Wishes Were Horses” was as haunting and bluesy as ever.

Confession time: trying to experience the Miami scene like eating from sample plates at Whole Foods was a mistake; I left the Wynwood way before I had my fill. Still, it was worth it to see a bit of Miami’s burgeoning folk scene. For the brevity, I’ll blame the night’s second destination: the Vagabond, to see Surfer Blood. I’m all about nightlife on a budget, so when I saw “free before 11” and “$1 PBR and Rolling Rock,” I made the fateful decision to leave early and hustle down North Miami Avenue. When neither of these promises was true, I was already inside the venue and pissed off. I hate being nickel and dimed and I hate false advertising, so the Vagabond gets poor marks for both.

ANYWAY, once inside the club and easing my spirits with America’s Best 1893, I was able to objectively judge my surroundings. Unlike Respectable Street, Vagabond is all about the décor and hipster chic; if you want a more upscale clientele, you invest in the look and feel of your club. The bar’s DJ was spinning the usual fare, and the only difference between the crowd and one at say Nouveau Riche was the smoking (something I could have sworn was banned in civilized society, but I digress).

A bit after midnight the crowd migrated to the back room, which was another dance floor with a small stage set up. Tallahassee’s Holiday Shores opened the show and play lo-fi, surf pop. Heavy on the Brian Wilson influence, the band could stand to tighten up their ambitious arrangements. Still, the music was light and danceable, and not unpleasant. What was unpleasant was the blaring electro/techno between sets – wasn’t this a rock show? Luckily, Surfer Blood quickly took the stage, and the Palm Beach quintet showed the crowd how it’s done.

Together for less than a year and riding a wave of buzz from their performances at CMJ, the band plays a catchy mix of indie pop and garage rock. The songwriting reminds me of Blue album Weezer and early Shins, without the pretension of Vampire Weekend, or the host of other blog bands that have gone to this well before. The vocals are drenched in reverb, the guitars unleash waves of fuzz, and the percussion even touches on the Afro-pop flavor that is so en vogue right now. Their debut album, Astro Coast, was recorded in a University of Florida dorm room, and drops in January. They’ll be doing a few dates in the US before heading to the UK, and by the time they return, Astro Coast will be the sound of 2010. Mark your calendar for February 24, when Surfer Blood, Holiday Shores, and Turbo Fruits descend on DC9, bringing a little bit of Florida sunshine to the DMV.

Next Dispatch from Suburbia: Rusko at White Room.

Photo of Surfer Blood at the Vagabond by Ian Witlin, Miami New Times.

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