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Dan DiMonte and the Bad Assettes will perform for the Saturday Night Concert Series

BY BRETT KARLAN | JUNE 20, 2013 5:00 AM

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How does a virtually unknown Iowa City band pull off playing a show at the Hard Rock Café in Chicago?

For University of Iowa student Dan DiMonte, it took a single email.

"I went online, I found the email address, I sent them an email, and they said sure," said DiMonte, a singer, guitar player, and frontman for the band Dan DiMonte and the Bad Assettes. "I couldn't see past the two people in front of me because of the lighting, but it sounded like the crowd was good."

The Bad Assettes will bring these Chicago chops back to Iowa City as part of the Saturday Night Concert Series, a component of the Iowa City Summer of the Arts. The band will take the stage at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on the Pedestrian Mall Weatherdance Fountain Stage.

Combining their university education with the nuances of rock and jazz music, DiMonte — along with Blake Shaw on bass, Dan Padley on guitar, Jonathan Birdsall on saxophone, Kim Andersen on vocals, and Emily Roane on drums — are set on continuing their steady surge to regional prominence. 

A band on the rise

The shows at the Hard Rock Café and the Saturday Night Concert Series mark just two of a smattering of gigs that DiMonte has lined up for the summer. The 21-year-old University of Iowa nursing and music student has played at the Java House several times and at the Mill. He will also perform at the Yacht Club at 9 p.m. the Friday  before the Summer of the Arts show.

These accomplishments are particularly striking, given how new the ensemble is to performing live.
"My first gig with a full band was over Christmas break," DiMonte said, sounding both excited and overwhelmed. The group appeared at the Chicago Street Pub in Joliet, Ill.

DiMonte has since lived something of a dual life, performing with musicians and friends in the Chicago area (including his brother) under the moniker the DiMonte Brothers Band while also organizing shows for the Bad Assettes in Iowa City.

This raises the question of how exactly an ensemble that was virtually unknown a few months ago has landed gigs at some of the most well-known venues in Iowa City. Scott Kading, the owner and talent buyer at the Yacht Club and Gabe's, has two answers.

"First, they put on an amazing show [at the Yacht Club] with a great crowd back in March," said Kading, who is also an official for the Summer of the Arts. "Second, there really aren't enough new bands in Iowa City currently."

Kading said that the under-21 ordinance enacted by the city in November 2010 put a damper on the band's emergence. But a recent city ordinance that allows entertainment venues to admit those ages 19 or older for the duration of business hours, he said, has altered the scene for the better.

"Now that [Iowa City music venues] are 19-plus all night, we hope to see that change in the future," Kading said.

Songwriting and all that jazz

One of the most notable aspects of DiMonte's sound is a distinct jazz element beneath pop melodies and rock instrumentation. During the song "La Sombra," for example, improvised saxophone and flamenco-style guitars tango over a traditional cha-cha rhythm. "Long Day" finds the group settling into funk-rock grooves that give way to Tower of Power-style horn riffs.

This jazz inflection is no accident, DiMonte said. In fact, he consciously thinks about jazz when he writes songs.

"What I try to do with my music is to take the intellect of jazz and funnel it into rock music," he said. He cited early Bruce Springsteen albums, especially The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, as being particularly influential.

Many of the band members got to know one another while participating in various jazz ensembles associated with the University of Iowa. DiMonte and bassist Shaw met while they both were members of the Jazz Repertory Ensemble, a larger band in the UI School of Music. Shaw has since graduated from the university with a degree in bass performance.

DiMonte also became friends with guitar player Padley while playing in the Jazz Repertory Ensemble. Padley just recently graduated with a degree in jazz studies.

When asked how their collective backgrounds in jazz influenced the ensemble's sound, many members gave similar responses.

"Jazz is a good base for any music to branch out of," Padley said. He said improvisation and playing as a group — two staples of traditional jazz music — are musical elements that are immediately apparent in the Bad Assettes' sound.

"Dan [DiMonte] writes all of the songs. All he gives me are sheets of paper with chord symbols, and I'm expected to fill the space," Padley said. "This means that we never play the same song twice."

Shaw echoed the idea that the jazz education of the members means the songs the Bad Assettes plays are continually changing. He said that the most evident aspect of jazz in the band's sound, however, is much more practical.

"It means we don't have to practice a lot," Shaw said and laughed. Padley said something similar.
"There's something of a higher level of musicality [in jazz]," he said. He hopes this musicianship transfers over into the rock music that the band makes.
 
The road from here

There can be no doubt whether the members of the Bad Assettes care about the musical quality of their product. But there are some in the community wishing for an even more refined sound from the ensemble.

"If there are any qualms with [DiMonte's] music, it's that it's so sensical," Zachariah Spindler said. Spindler performs solo shows around the area under the moniker Reldnips. He also regularly plays trombone with DiMonte.

"He's combined a few different influences in his songwriting, but they still come together in a way that is very nice and neat," Spindler said. "All of this is not a bad thing, but it could be seen as not taking a risk or not truly forging something new."

But Spindler said that many also find this sensibility to be a positive attribute.

"He writes music that is, theory-wise, very smart and sensical. It makes sense to the ear. It makes sense to the average listener," he said. "And it's good. … All we can do is wait and see where he goes from here."

Where exactly the band goes next is indeed an open question. DiMonte has one year left at the university before completing his degrees in nursing and music. Other players, including Padley and Shaw, have recently graduated. And Jonathan Birdsall, DiMonte's occasional tenor saxophone player who will join the group for the Saturday Night Concert Series show, will apply for medical schools this fall.

Still, members of the band said they are encouraged by the future prospects of the young ensemble, using the charisma they generate in their jobs and academics to create an open, inviting sound.

"They aren't mutually exclusive," Birdsall said about his work life and his musical career.

As for the future of Dan DiMonte and the Bad Assettes, DiMonte said he has a clear vision of how to move forward. No matter where he and his bandmates wind up, he said, he knows that they will all keep making music and entertaining audiences.

"I just romanticize this organic notion of playing and playing and playing until I'm good and until we're good," he said.


What: Saturday Night Concert Series, Dan DiMonte and the Bad Assettes
Where: Ped Mall Weatherdance Fountain Stage (held at the Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp on the corner of Washington and Gilbert in the event of rain)
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 22
Admission: Free


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