Not too many live music listeners pay attention to the drummer. When people go see a band, they notice the good-looking front person, or the killer guitarist. But the drummer typically goes unnoticed. Unless he (or she) can't play. Or unless there's something really special. Local Jazz and Rock drummer Shawn Elsbernd falls into the latter category.
For the last decade, Elsbernd has been involved with every project he can get his sticks on. He's had stints with Spindle (who were recently signed to Triple Crown Records), Heavy Weather, The Walker Project and The Bluebirds, just to name a few. Currently he's involved in three main projects, playing with 2003's 97Xposure winner, Emily Strand, and with two Jazz outfits: the Fusion project Protocol and his own Shawn (or Sean) Elsbernd Quartet. With characteristic humor he tells me, "You can spell the band name 'Sean' if you want.
Whenever CityBeat printed the name of the band they put 'Sean.' So, I kept it that way. But it looks kinda funny on my demo."
When asked whether he prefers playing Rock or Jazz, he says, "Both — the big, loud Punk Rock Spindle stuff, and the whisper quiet restaurant Jazz stuff. It's all fun."
When you watch Elsbernd play, in whatever project, you can tell right away that this is a guy who is having the time of his life onstage. Technically, he's spot on and an excellent player. Whether he's rocking out with Strand or quietly guiding the rhythm of the Quartet, he (quite literally) never misses a beat. But it's his personal energy and the big, beaming smile he brings to every performance that make him fascinating to watch.
This charisma helps bring people to his bimonthly gigs at Northside Tavern with the Quartet. People of every stripe, from young Indie Rock hipsters to middle-aged Jazz fans can be found there, listening to Elsbernd and his group (guitarist Will Toedtam, bassist Cary Jaquish, pianist Brian Cashwell, saxophonist Jay Ensminger and Brandon Kinman on trumpet) turn out innovative Jazz. They use standards as their base, but as Elsbernd says, "We reinvent them. You will never hear the same version of a tune at our shows." And yes, you did count right; the Quartet is now a sextet.
"We don't want to cause a fuss, so we still call it a quartet," Elsbernd tells me.
Northside Tavern is also the bimonthly (on Sundays) home of his Fusion project, Protocol, with guitarist Andy Kirkland, bassist Benj Clarke and saxophonist Ed Daugherty. Elsbernd is a big fan of Northside Tavern.
"The cool thing about Northside is it's so diverse," he says. "Mondays it's Jazz, then Folk bands play there, Kim Taylor plays there, and then you've got your Rock bands that play there on the weekends."
Just like the projects he plays in, Elsbernd's influences and favorite bands are varied. He counts everyone from Mike Patton (of Faith No More/Fantomas) and James Brown to Vernel Fournier (who Elsbernd touts as "the best Jazz drummer of all time"), Genesis ("Collins and Gabriel — they're both important") and John Bonham (Elsbernd's pick for "best Rock drummer of all time") as his major inspirations.
As for his favorite bands, he raves about spirited rockers The Mars Volta. "It's ridiculously good," he says. "It's really progressive Rock, Rock with a brain."
And on the Jazz side of things, he counts local act CatCity as a favorite.
"Every Sunday at the Blue Wisp, CatCity just destroys," Elsbernd enthuses. "They do all the really intense Fusion Jazz that everybody else is really scared to do. It's amazing; it's the best music you'll hear in town."
He has the most respect for musicians who hone their craft through practice. Since Elsbernd's day job is teaching drums at Buddy Rogers Music, his being a stickler about this is understandable. He has more than 60 students. Some show "real promise," he says. "But some of them just keep promising to practice," he adds with a laugh. He loves his work however, so much so that he refuses to call it that.
"I'll never have a real job again," he tells me. "Teaching is fun — too fun to be work."
He does admit though that if the opportunity to play with a signed act came along, he'd take it in a heartbeat. But sadly, that means he might not stay in his hometown.
"When you say you want to 'make it' as a musician, unfortunately, the first piece of advice everyone gives you is to leave here," he says.
While he is conflicted about the music industry, he concedes it's still necessary to get a record contract for the best distribution and marketing.
"When people are looking for new music, they're just wandering around music stores," he says, "and the record companies flood them with the new Britney Spears album. There's 50 of them, but nothing I'm looking for. So you get that, you get the label's name behind you, you get your record out there. But then you can get burned, too, like Moth," another favorite local act of Elsbernd's that got signed, but then consequently lost, their deal.
Lucky for us, Elsbernd looks to be in town for a while, cutting a demo with Emily Strand and keeping on with the Quartet and Protocol.
For Elsbernd, it always comes back to the music. "I'd just like people to come out and hear some good music," he says. "I'll never stop playing."
THE SHAWN ELSBERND QUARTET next plays the Northside Tavern on March 15. Protocol performs at the Northside Tavern on Monday.