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The Best Band That Never Was: Wildwood Ave.'s first show was also their last, but it was a good one 

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"You have to play a show."


"You just have to play a show. What's the point of having a band if you're not going to play a show?"

"Where would we play?"

"I dunno, but you have to play a show."

This back-and-forth replayed itself on a loop for a good hour in my kitchen. It was long after 1 a.m., making it officially my birthday, which gave me license, it seemed, to blur the boundary between friend and music writer. I'd already failed in an attempt to identify Olympia, Rainier and Pabst in a blind taste test earlier in the night, so I had nothing else to lose.

It was time to tell my friends, who had formed a band about a year prior, that they needed to emerge from their basement practice space and into a bar or a club or a front lawn. Earlier that month, Aaron Schmalz, who plays guitar in this band and who I often engage in discussions regarding the relative merits of both Levon Helm's lyrics and a college football playoff system, told me (and presumably his band) that he and his fiancé were moving to Hawaii's Big Island come the first of the year. So time was running short.

But on the last Thursday of December, a band calling itself Wildwood Ave. charged through the night's last funk-charged number and thanked the people who had come out to pack the Silver Moon Brewing Co. They had played a show. And a good one, at that, but it was probably the only show they'd ever play. This is all incredibly bittersweet, because in a different world, Wildwood Ave. would have snuggled nicely into the Bend music scene. Their jammy roots and improvisational abilities seemed custom built for Bend's core club goers. And as far as musicianship goes, they were near the top of what we have here.

Yes, there does, in fact, exist a rule mandating that one say exclusively nice things about his or her friends' bands. Even if they're god-awful and name themselves something like Hell's Anus or The Ted Danson Machine and play music you'd never allow on your iPod, you have to go to their shows. But that rule does not apply here. These guys were actually damn good.

But for much of the band's year and a half in existence, this sound - which evolved from a crawl to walk upright and eventually sprint during that time - was restricted to a studio apartment on the bottom level of Schmalz's house on Bend's Westside just big enough to accommodate the four men, their drums, keyboards, amplifiers, microphones and the nest of wires and cables that covered most of the wood floor. The windows were covered with discarded carpet samples and the fridge typically held a few stray PBRs. It was a certified musician's playhouse.

In addition to Schmalz, a carpenter turned software salesman, there's bass player Kyle Swantek, a nurse at St. Charles, drummer Rob Filippondi works in wine sales and holding down the keys is Jim Klusmier, a dentist with a practice in Sunriver. Although they had written original material and an arsenal of well-honed Phish covers in their quiver, they were a band without a name that practiced once or twice a week with a few short hiatuses thrown in to accommodate childbirth. Every few months Schmalz and Swantek would slip me a recording of a practice session and I could hear the band becoming something more than a garage act. Or a basement act. Or a studio apartment act. Sure, they were just four professionals playing music without any rock star delusions, but they were getting good. People needed to hear this.

And this is why I began intermittently lobbying Schmalz and company to play a show. Eventually, after the sort of gears-falling-into-place serendipity that these guys deserved came into play, the quartet - still unnamed - had a show booked at the Silver Moon. At a pre-show rehearsal, they debated a band name. For a few hours they called themselves the Noodles, then Ninja Vision, but by the next morning they decided on Wildwood Ave., a name that would be on the Silver Moon marquee less than two weeks later.

Schmalz, laughing in his North Dakota accent, calls it both "The One and Done Tour" and "The Only Waltz." However humorous, this is how they treated the show - with big, impeccably mix sound, well-crafted covers, a few e-mail blasts trumpeting the performance, a mountain of gear and, of course, plenty of friends-turned-fans. Someone who wandered into the show would have not been able to discern Wildwood Avenue from one of the many nationally touring acts that stop off at the Silver Moon. And I was surprised. I knew they would hold their own, but I didn't expect to be earnestly blown away.

Still, I couldn't help but have to suppress a tinge of anger as Rob Filippondi's thundering drums led the band through a cover of The New Mastersounds' instrumental romp "Zambezi." This would be the only time I - or anyone else - would see this. This was the best local band that never was and that was nearly tragic.

But as the quartet came to the end of its set, the members traded smiles with each other and a few folks in the crowd. This was fun - both in the basement and in a crowded bar. And maybe that's what mattered most.


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