- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

“We’re not playing until the end of the night,” vocalist/guitarist Prabir Mehta explains from a bar in Ft. Wayne, Ind., where three bands are scheduled to provide the evening’s entertainment.

Although originally slated to take the stage at 10:30 p.m., Prabir & the Substitutes’ performance has been pushed back to 1 a.m. , thus making them the evening’s headlining act.

The reason?

“Neither of the other bands wanted to play after us,” Mr. Mehta explains. “They say we cause too much of a ruckus.”

Formed in Richmond in 2005, Prabir & the Substitutes combine the melodies of vintage British pop with the muscled approach of oldies rock ‘n’ roll. Loud guitars and cool blasts of Rhodes organ lend some swagger to the music. Yet the true highlight is the band’s vocal ability. All five members sing, shout and harmonize, creating a sound that’s appropriate for roadhouses and sock hops alike.

The band’s tuneful racket hasn’t gone unnoticed. David Lowery, the Richmond-based frontman for Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, recently recruited the Substitutes to record in his own studio.

Shortly thereafter, the band toured in support of the Silver Beats, a popular Beatles “tribute band” comprising Japanese musicians. Prabir & the Substitutes found themselves playing sizable venues on the tour, including the B.B. King Blues Club in Manhattan and the 9:30 Club in Northwest.

Nonetheless, Prabir & the Substitutes remain an independent ensemble, a well-kept secret bestowed upon those lucky enough to catch one of their sweaty, raucous shows. This year, the performances are increasing, as the musicians learn to juggle their day jobs with their commitment to the band.

“We’ve been touring on extended weekends,” bassist Robbie King explains while sitting outside of the cozy Rumba Cafe in Columbus, Ohio, the day after the band’s Indiana concert.

“We’ll play some shows, run out of money, go home, make more money and then leave again to play more shows.”

The process can be tiring. While loading their equipment into the Rumba Cafe, the band mates discover that drummer Tyler Williams, who doubles as a waiter at an upscale Richmond restaurant, must return home the following afternoon to cover a shift. So the band will have to leave town immediately after the show and drive through the night to accommodate his boss’ request. Such knowledge, though, doesn’t dampen the show’s energy — nor does it change the musicians’ desire to be on the road.

“I have a new goal,” Mr. Mehta says just minutes before the show begins.

“I held up my key chain today, and on it were two keys to my house and one key to my parents’ house. It dawned on me that this is what I want. I don’t want to have keys to my office; I don’t want to have keys to my car.”

He pauses and gestures to the large, yellow van that shuttles the band from venue to venue. “I do need keys for that, though,” Mr. Mehta says.

Prabir & the Substitutes sound best in a live setting, where the band’s vocal harmonies and boogie backbone are accompanied by a fierce stage presence.

Still, the recently released “Five Little Pieces” captures some of the band’s strongest work to date, from the lovesick jangle of “The Kiss” to the title track’s harmonized hooks. A new album is in the works, and the band plans to release a homegrown EP in mid-April. They recorded the EP themselves, utilizing the production talents of Mr. King and organist Charlie Glenn to keep the project in-house.

“When you record yourself,” explains guitarist Chris Smith, “you are obviously in complete control. At the same time, you’re sacrificing your free time, your work time, and in some cases your relationships with other band members. There’s a lot of arguing and a lot of coin-tossing, but you also have complete responsibility for the album, and I think that helps.”

For now, Prabir & the Substitutes will continue to have complete responsibility over their own recordings, booking, finances and merchandise.

“We want to record our music in a big studio and we want to tour,” Mr. Mehta says, “but we don’t have the budget to do both. The only way we could do both is if we stopped for a while, and I think our ambition is too big for that type of patience. We want to do things now, so we do them ourselves. And I don’t see it as a sacrifice.”

Catch Prabir & the Substitutes at the Iota Club on Sunday. Tickets for the 7 p.m. show are $10.

Rothbury: round 2

Music and environmental sustainability go hand-in-hand at Rothbury, a young festival held annually in western Michigan.

Compared with the sweltering heat that accompanies festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella, Rothbury is a temperate event, with trees and lakes dotting the property on which it takes place.

Last year’s inaugural event saw attendees flocking to the Sherwood Forrest, where hammocks and makeshift huts offered a respite from the weekend’s sunny, music-filled activities.

This year’s sophomore festival, scheduled for July 2-5, will include performances by Bob Dylan, the Dead, the Black Crowes and Willie Nelson, a lineup that caters to jam-band fans and folk fanatics alike.

A complete festival lineup is available at www.rothburyfestival.com.

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