At Café Terra in Rutland, Castleton State College alumnus Julian DeFelice is about to perform. It’s 10 minutes until the first of three acts from his independent record label, Indiaman Traitor Judah Magdeline Records, is to play. The 25-year-old will be on stage for the second and third.
That’s not to say he’ll be idle while the first act is on stage. The first performer is Jensen Ellen, who doubles as Sparklebox’s lead singer. She’s a gently-framed, shy-smiling, leading-lady and DeFelice is with her the whole way through.
DeFelice wears many hats while his label’s talent performs. He’s programmer, producer, back-up musician, sound guy and audience member. He adjusts the levels while Ellen sings, applauds when she’s done playing, and chats up the band with audience members between the songs.
Lily Ames seems surprised by the sound coming from Ellen, and trails-off mid sentence as she sang.
“She’s really good, I knew she could sing but…” the co-owner of the café said smiling and shaking her head.
Ellen’s stage presence is reserved, but her voice carries. Her guitar, a deep-brown acoustic with a squared patch of pink in the center, looks as unassuming as she.
Her songs come with a heavy dose of reverb-laden-lyrics on the microphone, accompanied by reserved chords from the guitar. The singing gets most of the attention. The notes she sings are echoes over echoes of ghostly longing. There’s emotion in those notes, and Ellen is not afraid to let it out.
When she isn’t working on her voice and her guitar chops, Ellen is a barista for Ames at the coffee shop. “I knew she played, but never heard her like this,” said Ames. “It’s awesome, and the show came together so quickly.”
Credit that to DeFelice, a veteran when it comes to playing at this venue. Jacob Pluta, the café’s other owner, said DeFelice’s performances are legendary there.
“Julian’s first show was probably the biggest one we’ve ever had,” he said.
As Ellen wraps her final song, she remains on stage – if it can be called as much. Tsables and chairs are pulled from the front of the shop, to carve out a small square by the windows, which face outside to a quiet hill on Center Street, in downtown Rutland.
The audience applauds and Harry “Gingles” Dulaney, drummer for Sparklebox, walks to the drum kit in the corner. DeFelice, outside smoking on the steps in front of Café Terra, notices the players.
“It’s their band,” says DeFelice about Sparklebox, “I’m just jumping in for a song or two.”
What he calls jumping in, would be better suited if called shy contribution. He’s not even standing with the band. Rather, he sits, first row, in the crowd facing the band, with an electric bass over nonchalantly-crossed legs.
From the bar it’d be impossible to tell he’s with them.
Marc Latzky, a Rutland-based promoter who works, and occasionally plays, with DeFelice and company, has an explanation for his contribution. “We’ll all work together, during shows,” says Latzke. “We‘re all about the same thing.”
Meanwhile, Sparklebox is raging on. Ellen’s vocals have transitioned from whisper-soft, Fiona-Apple-folk to Karen-O-attitude. Behind her, sits Dulaney who mostly pounds the floor-tom, fast and ferocious enough to match her energy.
Dulaney had previously been taking his hacks playing music in Boston, where he cultivated his attitude on music. “It’s a do-it-yourself style now, and I love it,” he said. “It’s friends playing together, not on stages, they’re in basements, and loving to do it.”
It even feels like a basement show. It’s small, intimate, and the band is on top of the crowd. Even the drinks are brought from home. It’s BYOB – and the beer cans rest in backpacks. Café Terra doesn’t serve liquor, but by all means, the patron may bring in his own.
Between sips of coffee – or beer – the audience is steadfastly listening, mostly sitting, with feet tapping as the trio plays. A Sparklebox song can best be described as an indy-grunge blend of peaks and valleys, oscillating between heavy-handed driving chords and drums, to bare-boned soliloquy with only Ellen and her microphone.
DeFelice leaves the set, and the sound transforms again.
From full to raw — but songs seem to be written with that intention. There’s no reduction in quality, when it’s just Ellen and Dulaney.
As Sparklebox closes, Chaz Canney, Rutland native, sax player, flautist, and backup singer for Defelice enters the shop. “They’re only going to get better,” says Canney in reference to Sparklebox, “They’ve only rehearsed all these songs, like, eight times. They’re good.”
Sparklebox finishes, and Ellen departs the stage. Dulaney stays. He’ll be playing drums for J. Rumney, DeFelice’s stage name.
With DeFelice singing, and going back and forth from keyboard to guitar, Canney shows equal versatility. He plays riffs on the saxophone between DeFelice’s lyrics, and plays melody on the flute over keyboard chord progressions.
J. Rumney’s sound is new. Hard alternative meets indie-folk over pop-rock undertones that make for compelling arrangements.
Former CSC art major Anna Arthur-Sgalia, is feeling it.
“I like the switching up of instruments,” she said. “Sax, and flute and guitar, and since they’re not being that prog-rock [progressive rock] stuff, it’s pretty cool.”
It’s a sound that has its roots buried in rock and roll, but with branches on the forefront of experimentation. Songs like “Don‘t Stop ‘Til The City is Gone” feature choruses dusted with influence by Beatles-like harmonies between DeFelice and Canney.
Tunes like “Bat Masterson” sound more like twisted Death Cab for Cutie cuts.
“These guys are more creative than we’ve seen around here in a long time; it’s not about playing covers anymore,” says Latzky. “This new group of musicians is exceptional.”
DeFelice has no plans to stop with the original music. After releasing an album last October, “Hallows Eve,” he’s hard at work on his next one, which will be out in summer, 2012.
More of DeFelice’s music, as well as music from other bands on his record label, can be found through the Facebook page for ITJM Records. The album Hallows Eve can be downloaded for free, in its entirety at www.jrumney.com. Sparklebox recordings can be found, similarly, at their self-titled Facebook page.