By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It's a long way from coffeehouses to arenas, but Cincinnati pop-rocker Jason Allen Phelps made that jump in just a few months.
In the late '90s, Phelps was just another acoustic singer/songwriter, packing his guitar to java joints, small clubs and bookstores on the Southern Ohio circuit.
Now he is a member of Pay The Girl, a hot Cincinnati band with big local following and a brand-new CD on a national record label. Pay The Girl is No. 21 on Billboard's Hot AC chart; and the band's first single, "Freeze," is getting played locally on Q102 and the MIX (94.1).
IF YOU GO
What: The 2003 Cammy Awards
Where: Jillian's 522 W. 12th St., Covington;
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $12.50 advance at Ticketmaster outlets (562-4949); $15 at the door.
More details: Complete Cammys program coming Friday in Weekend.
Sunday, in a long-awaited return performance, Pay The Girl performs at the Enquirer Pop Music Awards (the Cammys).
Seeking a bigger sound
Phelps got his early experience in Athens while attending Ohio University. When he'd come home, he'd play with his guitarist buddy Mark Cooper and kept it up after moving back to Cincinnati.
"I was really just playing anywhere I could, just to get a little exposure," Phelps says.
During the day, he made a name for himself as a WLW radio production director, singing and writing promos and spoofs. At night he became known as a good songwriter and an earnest performer. He was a regular on Pepsi Jammin' on Main, appearing at the 1999 and 2000 fests, as well as on the Jammin' compilation CDs.
But he wanted a bigger sound.
"I was doing that for a while with just the solo thing," he explains. "I was starting to get a little burned-out. It's a lot more fun with a band."
Band formed in '01
Pay The Girl was formed in 2001 with local session ace Josh Seurkamp on drums and veteran bassist Mike Georgin (Plow on Boy, Over The Rhine). They have been replaced by Greg Braun and Drew Phillips, respectively. Phelps' old pal Cooper is in the band, sharing guitar duties with Dave Harris.
With the baby-faced Phelps fronting the group, PTG quickly drew a sizable female audience. In fall 2001, the band released a five-song EP to attract some label interest. Backed by a strong local team that included manager Mark Liggett (Blessid Union of Souls) and independent promoter Bill Scull, PTG signed with TVT (Nine Inch Nails).
Last year, PTG dipped its toes in the national market, when its "Clueless" appeared on the Swimfan soundtrack alongside such heavyweights as Sevendust and Saliva.
The self-titled, full-length TVT debut was released Tuesday. A CD release party is planned for March 14 at the Madison Theater in Covington.
Video does it
Another big break came last fall, when PTG toured arenas, opening for Colombian pop-rocker Shakira.
"We had sent in a video clip to her management," says Phelps. "We heard that she was looking for a rock band. So we sent in a video clip and we must have been the only band that sent out a video, because they called us rather quickly and said, `Shakira picked you guys. She wants you to hit the road.' "
It may seem odd, an original, modern rock band touring with a pop queen, but Phelps points out that Shakira is more versatile than Britney or Christina.
"She's a little bit of a rocker herself. In her set she covers (AC/DC's) `Back in Black' and Aerosmith's `Dude (Looks Like a Lady),' so she's got some of that in her."
Still, many local PTG fans questioned the move; there was a serious risk of being branded a boy band with electric guitars.
PTG wasn't afraid, says Phelps. "The bottom line for us was the chance to get in front of a lot of people and play in front of a audience that we wouldn't normally get a chance to play in front of. It was a positive step for our band."
PTG may be right on time, as far as the industry goes. As Avril Lavigne proved, there's a huge teenage audience that's outgrown its boy-band phase. They want to rock, and the smartly edgy, melodic pop-rock of PTG may be just the ticket.
But Phelps says he and the other guys aren't really aiming for any particular market.
"We don't really think much about it," he says. "We're just trying to do our thing and write great songs and let the band fall where it may."
"We'll be getting out a lot to promote the album," says Phelps. "I think the band's a lot more `rock' live than on the record. But I think the people who come out and see the band can form their own opinion."
Technology improves HIV testing access
KNIPPENBERG: Knip's eye view
'Pay day' arrives
Kate feels comfortable being Kate
Vatican's treasures go on display in U.S.
New video can show youngsters 'sport' of dance
Keith top nominee in country awards
The Early Word
Get to it!