Sunday, April 25, 1999

Blessid Union's brand new 'Buzz'


Cincinnati band is back with new album, new record label and harder-rocking sound

BY LARRY NAGER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The band hits the arena stage almost on a run, shouldering guitars and launching into a raucous set that includes a rocking cover of the Beatles' “Revolution.”

        This is not Kathie Lee Blessid Union of Souls. The gentle pop-rock band she gushed over on her morning TV show four years ago has been through a lot of changes.

        The guys have a new record label, a new album and a new, edgier sound, one that balances pop tunefulness with a harder rocking approach.

        “We knew we wanted to make it a little more guitar-oriented,” singer Eliot Sloan says. “We were all looking forward to (playing live). We knew we were going to hit 'em with a couple things they hadn't heard. There was a few jitters, but we were like, "Let's go do this! We're gonna jump in the water with both feet.' ”

        If the concert debut of its new sound at Cincinnati Gardens' Q102 Winter Bash got their feet wet, then Blessid Union is about to dive head first back into the deepest currents of the national music industry.

        The top-selling Cincinnati band releases Walking Off the Buzz on Tuesday. The disc's first single, “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me for Me),” was released to national radio in March and is being played on about 100 stations. This month, the band shot a video for the single and is promoting the song with a national tour of radio stations.

        Two years ago, Blessid Union seemed to be under a record label curse.

        “We've had five labels in 51/2 years and this is only our third album,” Blessid Union manager Mark Liggett says.

        “It can be depressing,” Mr. Sloan says. “But overall, I think it has let us know we really can write some good songs and make some good music and and it really doesn't matter what label we're on.”

        Keyboardist C.P. Roth says the lack of label support allowed Blessid Union to tinker with its sound without label interference.

        “It's the same with any record company,” Mr. Roth says. “You come out, you have a success with the first single. No matter what it is, if it's "I Believe,' or if it's a bunch of dogs barking, they want you to go out and do it again, and do it again, and do it again. That's what works, that's what successful. But this (band) is a very multifaceted beast here.”

        For example, on Walking Off the Buzz, Mr. Roth, a former Ozzy Osbourne keyboardist, steps out from his synths to play bass guitar and blow harmonica. Bassist Tony Clark doubles on rhythm guitar, while guitarist Jeff Pence displays a variety of new guitar sounds.

Whirlwind tour
        Blessid Union has begun promoting its single and album, visiting as many radio stations as possible.

        “We've all been up for like a week,” a weary Mr. Roth says, speaking by phone from his Fort Worth hotel room. “Here's a typical week, we went up and played a gig at Sault Ste. Marie (in northern Michigan) Saturday night. Sunday morning, we got up at five o'clock, drove ourselves down to Detroit Airport, got on a plane, landed in Chicago, got on another plane, went to L.A., immediately went to a production meeting for the video that we shot.

        “Monday, we did wardrobe. Tuesday we shot the video. Wednesday we did Rick Dees' morning show. We also dropped (recorded) some (announcement) liners for The Rick Dees Weekly Top 40, then we went around and visited a bunch of trade magazines.

        “Then we got on another plane, flew out to Dallas. This morning (Thursday) we were up again at 5 o'clock, and did the Good Morning Dallas TV show, and now we've just checked into the Fort Worth Hotel and now we're going to play tomorrow night with Shawn Colvin.”

        “They've been survivors,” observes Dan Beck, president of V2, Blessid Union's new label. “As much as it's probably been a difficult thing for them, they've also learned from it, and I think they've also learned to stop depending on a record company. And ironically, that's how we can come in and be of help.”

        V2 is giving Blessid Union promotional support. The new video for “Hey Leonardo” was shot by Geoff Moore, whose credits include clips for U2, the Cardigans and Jewel. Their stay in L.A. was highlighted by their new label taking them to dinner at the posh Ivy, a restaurant featured in the film Get Shorty to personify the height of Hollywood luxury.

        Blessid Union is older and wiser. Young groups see a major label record contract as the end of the rainbow. After signing five of them, these guys know better.

        “All these good things are happening and it's great,” Mr. Roth says. “But it's not like any of us has an expectation about this, that anything more is gonna come of this than where it's at right now. But we're certainly diggin' the ride.”

        And what a ride it's been. Mr. Sloan and Blessid Union drummer Eddie Hedges signed their first big contract in the mid-'80s as part of the Movies.

        That group, signed to CBS Associated, was part of the '80s wave of Cincinnati R&B with Midnight Star, the Deele, Sharp and Sly Fox.

        Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and L.A. Reid left the Deele to become R&B production moguls. When the Movies flopped, Messrs. Sloan and Hedges were back in local clubs.

        Mr. Hedges also spent five years in Los Angeles, playing with everyone from Sheila E. to Johnny Gill to Ru Paul. But he missed Cincinnati and returned to play local clubs. He says if Blessid Union broke up tomorrow, he'd be right back there.

        “It wouldn't bother me if I did,” Mr. Hedges says. “My thing is I enjoy music, I enjoy playing it, creating it. As long as I'm able to support myself doing that, to me I can be happy on any level.”

        But, he says, the state of Blessid Union is more solid than ever.

        “I knew this wasn't gonna be over. Everybody in this band seems like they share the same determination to do what we want to do for a living,” he explains. “We've already been through a couple of labels, it's like "We'll get another one.' And if we don't get a label and we have a good record, we'll put it out ourselves, go right on the Internet.

Friends on radio
        For now, Blessid Union of Souls is promoting its record the old-fashioned way: on the radio. Years of doing meet-and-greets and concerts for stations across the country are paying off. They have a lot of friends in radio. Combined with a good record, that means lots of airplay.

        “"Hey Leonardo' is one of our most requested songs,” says Mike Marino, operations manager for Cincinnati's WKRQ-FM (101.9). “We had instant reaction from the time we put it on the air. I think they've just created a new sound for them, which basically freshened up their image and took their music to a new level. It's just a fun song and I don't think there are enough of them out there right now.”

        “Hey Leonardo” isn't being sold as a single, so fans must wait until Walking Off the Buzz hits stores Tuesday to buy it.

        The band plans to stay busy through the summer with a national tour, focusing on outdoor events sponsored by radio stations. By summer's end, they hope to have a hit album.

        “I really can't complain about the way things have been going,” Mr. Sloan says. “It's all new and exciting again. I really am glad that all of us are more mature and can handle things now, than if everybody was just about out of high school and out of college or whatever.”

        For now, the tough times seem to be behind Blessid Union.

        “I don't think this band is gonna be over for a while,” Mr. Hedges says. “Because it's like a family, a family that I'm used to, where you're gonna fight, you're gonna scrap, you're gonna be mad. But when the stuff gets thick, you pull together, and that's what we basically do in any type of situation. There's strength there.”

        BLESSID TIME

        1993 — Blessid Union of Souls, a band formed from Las Brisas' house band Jam Factor (which included Eliot Sloan, Jeff Pence, Eddie Hedges and the group's first bassist, Donald Segar Jr.), signs a contract with SBK Records.

        1995 — SBK goes out of business, so Blessid Union's debut album, Home, is released on EMI.

        The debut single, “I Believe,” an anthem-like ballad about racial equality, shoots up the charts into the Top 10. The band appears on national TV on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.

        1997Blessid Union of Souls, the band's second album, is released on EMI. Less than three weeks later, the label goes out of business.

        Five months later, the momentum gone, Capitol Records picks up the band's contract and begins tentatively promoting the CD. Nonetheless, the band manages to sell almost half a million copies of Blessid Union of Souls before obtaining a release from its Capitol contract.

        1998 — Push, a BMG subsidiary, steps in, and Blessid Union records Walking Off the Buzz.

        1999 — Push, realizing it lacks the resources to promote a mainstream pop album, forms Push/V2, a joint venture with V2, the label owned by Virgin Records' former owner Richard Branson.

        “Hey Leonardo” is released in early March. Walking Off the Buzz reaches record stores Tuesday.

Blessid's latest showcases different sounds



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