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In harmony: Members of FLAME pose beside their tour bus.c Black

PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

Making a Connection

For the band FLAME, developmental disabilities are a challenge—and playing music is a challenge conquered

By Erik Hage

 

A lot of what makes FLAME remarkable is embodied in Michelle King, the talented, bold-voiced singer-guitarist who fronts the 11-piece band of musicians. The band members all have varying developmental disabilities. Michelle King has autism and, according to Lexington Center executive director Paul Nigra, is “mentally challenged.” But the difference between King offstage and on is distinct.

(Lexington Center is the Fulton County chapter of the Arc, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness and support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.)

FLAME are between sets at the Lobster Festival in Washington Park, where they have been entertaining a packed tent of milling people. At a side-stage area outside the tent, I interview King, drummer David LaGrange, who is blind and mentally challenged, and percussionist Shawn Lehr, who has Down syndrome.

To King, I am a new person, a stranger, and I have a tape recorder and questions. Initially, her attitude toward me suggests a mixture of wariness and indifference. But it is likely neither. King avoids eye contact, but she is sweet in demeanor and lights up a bit when I explain who I am and what I’m doing. We have the following exchange:

“What’s your favorite part about playing in FLAME?”

“Well . . . (pause) Yeah, um, it first started in 2003. That’s when it started.”

“What do you like about it?”

“Playin’. Singin’ and playin’ the guitar.”

“Do you guys consider yourselves role models?”

“Yeah.”

“How so?”

“Well, um, we have been doin’ a lot of stuff since we first started in 2003.”

Autism’s impact is in the areas of social interaction and communication skills; the difficulty lies in connecting. My uninitiated take on it: It’s like King and I have moments of understanding, but they are brief, and then we move in different directions:

“Who chooses the songs?”

“I choose the songs.”

“What is it about them that makes you like them?”

“That I pick the songs from the ’60s and ’70s. The ’70s, ’80s, ’90s . . . and today.”

But then witness King on stage: She introduces the songs, and she gets the crowd going. Hers is a rich, versatile voice, full of confidence and resolution. She and FLAME tackle cover after cover—a little Pink Floyd here, some Bon Jovi there. She shows remarkable range and a gift for brewing up a storm on her acoustic guitar.

The playing is tight, and behind her, LaGrange is a powerhouse on the drum kit, hitting furious fills that, in his blindness, he must “feel” rather than see. A row of other members add some lifting, beautiful harmonies.

Many in the crowd are enamored with the band. Some say so, and some just have that look on their faces. And as King, full of ease, strums and sings, she gazes clearly and intently right back out at the crowd, and I swear I can see a connection on her face. This is not someone skillfully going through the motions or aping behavior but someone having a meaningful interaction. Her face is different, and her eyes are too.

This is the “FLAME effect.” It affects the band members and the audience too. FLAME are not simply a good band considering the circumstances. They are a fine rock band based on the estimation of anyone with a set of ears, outside of context and circumstances.

But beyond the remarkable individual stories of King, LaGrange and the others is a larger phenomenon. “They work together; that’s what makes this thing so special,” says Nigra. “I bet there’s nothing like this anywhere in the world, where there are people who are so disabled on one hand, and yet are able to consistently make music as a group.” He has been saying this for the four years that FLAME have been together, and no one has refuted him or brought to light other examples. It just might be that there is only one FLAME.

Back in 2003, during Lexington Center’s annual talent show, King sang a song that “just blew everyone away,” recounts Tim Fiori, FLAME’s director of PR and marketing. The recreation director decided that she needed to form a band around Michelle’s talent, so she matched her with LaGrange, whom everyone knew could play drums. They held open auditions for the remaining members. “Within two weeks, the whole band was formed,” says Fiori, adding that King didn’t know how to play guitar at the time, so one of the custodians taught her. “She’s so amazing that she learned guitar in, like, a week.”

FLAME have one album to their credit and another on the way. They have their own tour bus, financed from earnings; they will play 87 performances this year (mostly in New York state), and Fiori says he has had to turn down countless more shows due to the high demand. “They don’t do any promotion to get gigs. It’s amazing. I just get calls every day.”

They have sold more than 2,000 copies of their recent CD, All for a Reason, primarily through sales at shows. Fiori adds that they are also pitching a TV program. Evan Farmer, the host of TLC’s While You Were Out, has a treatment in hand and is currently spearheading a round of pitches to cable and network executives on both coasts. The proposal is for a 12-part reality-type documentary on FLAME’s travels and performances.

Whether or not FLAME reach a national TV audience, their local impact is story enough. And it’s certainly interesting how Lexington Center has a dual identity, operating as the Fulton County Arc on the one hand, yet as increasingly savvy promoters of an increasingly well-known, in-house rock band on the other. (The band’s tour bus, complete with TVs, has to be seen in order to understand the seriousness of this venture.)

And in a world where entertainment role models have such an impact, FLAME are filling a void and delightfully upsetting the paradigm. At an event for the Schoharie County Arc in February, I witnessed the local Arc citizens going ecstatic and bounding around to the music on the dance floor while FLAME ripped through a tight, raucous set. They were moved by the music, but one also sensed that they were moved by seeing people like themselves on stage.

Fiori also notes that in FLAME’s home base of Fulton County, “The community really takes ownership of the band, and it makes [the community] feel closer to Lexington Center. They play in the community a lot, and the band does benefits in the local area. It has a really positive effect on Lexington.”

As to what being in the band has done for the individual members, Fiori says, “It’s a lot of their lives. If they didn’t have it, I wonder . . .” He trails off, as if banishing the thought, then adds, “It’s helped them overcome a lot of social issues and issues of communication. Getting out in front of crowds and fans and kids across the state has been so great for their social development and has helped them overcome fears. And traveling and staying in hotels has been great for them to develop themselves. And they’re also making money, so they’re working on finances and a lot of different things.”

King, LaGrange and Lehr also point out that their families are thrilled with their involvement in the band. LaGrange, whose conversation is fueled by the same bright, coiled energy that he hits the skins with, nails down the final beat of the interview by shouting, “They get a bang out of it!”

Today (Thursday, June 21), FLAME will play the Schenectady Arc’s 50’s BBQ in Schenectady’s Central Park (4:30-7:30 PM). On June 29, they will return to the same location for Schenectady’s Disabled Awareness Day celebration (4-6 PM).


ROUGH MIX

THAT AIN’T COUNTRY OK, so WGNA’s CountryFest isn’t really going anywhere. Turns out the festival, scheduled for July 14, will again take place at the Altamont Fairgrounds—not SUNY Cobleskill, as reported in last week’s issue. For ticket information, call the CountryFest hotline at 377-0810.

 

CHANGING SPACES After sitting silent for more than a year, Saratoga Winners, the old shed on Route 9 in Cohoes, has been snatched up by new owners Stephen and Nickole Sutliff and reportedly will be returned to its former rock-club glory. Ye olde roadhouse sold for just under a million bucks, according to a Times Union report, although a hefty amount of renovations have to be completed before the venue is ready for the public. Word has it the club is booking for October. . . . In another direction, the Van Dyck is now on the market, having been closed for renovations since March. Owner Peter Olson still hopes to resume operations at the Schenectady landmark. Here’s hoping it all works out, as the Van Dyck’s performance space is one of our area’s very best music rooms. . . . And, speaking of best rooms, the Iron Horse Music Hall got a nod as one of Paste magazine’s 40 Best Music Venues. The June issue of Paste calls the Northampton, Mass., hotspot the “best place to catch beloved songwriters in an off-the-beaten-path setting.”

 

TAKE OFF! Like a distant early warning of things to come—namely, the Rush concert at SPAC, which happens June 30—the new disc by Run for Cover landed in the office this week. It’s a Rush tribute, of course, and the four musicians, including the Capital Region’s own Carl Schultz, are all members of other Rush tribute bands, so you know their hearts are in it. The CD, produced locally at the Den and SOS Studios and released last month by the Eclipse label, features note-perfect reconstructions of 11 of the Canadian prog pioneers’ best-known songs from between 1977 and 1984 (including rock-radio staples like “Tom Sawyer,” “Subdivisions,” and “New World Man”), and they sound . . . well, a lot like Rush. Find out more at eclipserecords.com.

 

HOWDY, CAMPERS Time to break out the dome tent and stock the cooler: The dates and lineups for a number of multiday music festivals have been announced, each with its share of unique offerings. The Indian Lookout Country Club in Mariaville has two out-there adventures lined up: Camp Creek (July 27-29, camp creekonline.com) is hosted as usual by Max Creek, and this year’s lineup features sets by Capital Region acts Wreckloose and School Bus Yellow; the schedule for Camp Bisco VI (Aug. 16-18, camp bisco.net) is more adventurous, featuring sets by eye-patch-sporting rap legend Slick Rick and wizardly sound-pastiche artist Girl Talk alongside more jam- oriented acts. For an altogether, different adventure, head out to Indian Lookout this weekend for the annual Harley Rendezvous (June 22-24, harleyrendezvous .com) and catch the sounds of Edgar Winter, Blackfoot, and Howard Stern sidekick Fred Norris’ band King Norris—and a lot of motorcycles.

moe.down 8 (Aug. 31-Sept. 2, moe.org/moedown) is again at the Snow Ridge Ski area in Turin (north of Rome), and this year’s roster is notable for two acts (besides moe., of course): Ryan Adams and the Cardinals and desert-punk legends Meat Puppets, with original bassist Cris Kirkwood on board for the first time in more than a decade. Also, the Roots will be there. Wait, there’s more: Arlo Guthrie and Marshall Crenshaw are among the main acts appearing at this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (July 26-29, falconridge folk.com) in Hillsdale (about an hour southeast of Albany).

Among the camping-free festivals, there’s next weekend’s Mountain Music Meltdown (June 30-July 1, lazarbearproductions.com). The first of its kind, it takes place at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake, and features sets by Doc Watson and Commander Cody. And this summer’s Green River Festival (July 20-21, greenriverfestival.com), in Greenfield, Mass., boasts the only scheduled regional performance by (ooh la la!) Neko Case, plus Buddy Guy and international superstars the Kamikaze Hearts. Cross your fingers and hope for weekend after weekend of precipitation-free weather so you can enjoy all of this.

—John Brodeur

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail John Brodeur at jbrodeur@ metroland.net or call (518) 463-2500 ext. 145.



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