One doesn't normally think of the quiet community of DeLand (population 22,000) as the hottest place for the latest in live music. Musically, the Volusia County seat is better known as the home of Stetson University and its excellent classical program. But on this weekend, the quiet will be shattered when over 70 musical acts converge on the historic city by the St. Johns River for the third annual DeLand Original Music Festival.
The event promises not only fresh compositions from area musicians such as Hindu Cowboys, Acousticon, Dan Walters and Bandees but a wide array of musical styles and genres. Picture this: At one outdoor stage, the crowd grooves to the exuberant sounds of gospel-inspired sacred-steel stylings. Nearby, a lone guitarist laments a lost love in song. Around the corner, the notes of new-age musings hold sway.
The festival is the brainchild of Phil Weidner, founder and president of the Songwriters Showcases of America (SSA). Based in Daytona Beach, Weidner acknowledges that downtown DeLand is an unusual place for such an ambitious undertaking, but he says it's one that works well. "It just really has a nice environment to stage [acts] within a three -block radius. It's just the charm behind the city, the friendliness we really like."
It breaks down to 12 hours of music exploration for $15 bucks -- a bargain. There will be a few vendors for food and drink, with area restaurants looking forward to the influx. Indeed, spending a day at this music fest is not unlike attending an outdoor art festival.
"Instead of having your booths of artists showing their paintings, it's music. You can walk 50 feet, and you'll have one area of music going on ... and then another. If you don't prefer [one] type of music, you can easily go to another venue."
Weidner, who is a musician, formed the SSA three years ago with the goal of helping artists achieve recognition for their original compositions. "When I started brainstorming it, it just seemed to make sense ... [it's] a national organization that assists artists not only here in Central Florida but throughout the country." Though most of the artists are local, the SSA's roster lists musicians from as far away as Philadelphia and Bloomingdale, New Jersey.
The SSA's website (www.ssa.cc) is integral to such assistance. Participating musicians -- Weidner puts the number at over 200 -- each have their own web page.
"This is a big networking tool," says Orlando nouveau-folkie SusieCool. "I can simply go on the Net [and find other musicians]."
Soulful singer/songwriter Serina Jung agrees; originally from Canada, the now Orlando-based artist says being in the SSA has brought her more exposure. "That's what [musicians] want -- 'Listen to me, listen to what I've got.' Saying I'm part of the SSA is a buzzword right now. I've met musicians in other genres that I wouldn't have necessarily [met otherwise]."
The camaraderie found within the organization aside, Weidner spends much of his time scouting locales for musicians like Jung to play. "When I started the organization, I had the [idea] to create places with more formal-type settings." Thus, when the group threw its annual awards show in June, it was held at the Seaside Music Theatre in Daytona Beach. And DeLand's Sands Theatre Center will host the opening concert for this weekend's festival, featuring the spunky sounds of Amy Steinberg and the sultry stylings of Shawn James, as well as Dan Walters and Logan Belle (8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4; $10).
Due to its moniker, Songwriters Showcases of America boasts an abundance of more traditional singer/songwriters, but anyone attending the June annual awards show witnessed a rainbow of genres, from metal, country and blues to rock, pop and hip-hop. "It just seems to be magical in that sense," says Weidner. "The artists have come through the website or just by finding [us] through friends. ... There's such a wide variety of people creating music now."
The SSA practices a form of quality control, however. Artists must work their way up the musical ladder to perform in the organization's "Spotlight Showcases," such as the "O Live" series held every other month at downtown Orlando venues like Dante's and Slingapour's. And they must prove their worth through the audition process if they are to perform on main stages like the one at the DeLand festival or at the annual awards show.
But performance is not the only component of the SSA on Weidner's mind these days. He hopes the SSA will have an Internet radio station up and running by the end of this year. "It will give not only people within the organization a way to hear, on a regular basis, acts that we showcase; it will give other people from all over the world the opportunity to hear a lot of the music that we present." And he adds the SSA's third annual compilation CD will be released in the near future.
Which leads one to wonder: Where does the money for all this come from? In the case of the CD, the musicians pay a service fee for production. And there are annual membership fees. But Weidner says the bulk of the money is generated at the yearly festival and awards ceremony. Still, since the organization isn't exactly raking in the bucks, the SSA is in the process of applying for nonprofit status.
Come Saturday, though, three blocks of normally introverted DeLand will be jamming with the sounds of 70 SSA acts. And Weidner's optimistic that the festival's third anniversary will draw several thousand listeners instead of just the 700 people who turned out last year in the rain. A sunny day will no doubt lend sweet music to many an ear.
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