PORTLAND, Maine — In a barebones studio in Bayside, a cadre of top-notch singers slips through the unmarked door. First Erin Davidson, then Bryan Eldridge. Next comes Loretta Allen.
They look around, take off their coats and one after another step up to the mic. As the folk singer, rap star and sultry songstress belt out their torch songs, a bank of trombones, saxophones, trumpets and strings come to life in a thunderous, rich euphony.
It’s rehearsal night for Big Band Syndrome and The Fogcutters are in their groove. This 20-piece band, made up of a who’s who of the Portland music scene including members of Rustic Overtones, Doubting Gravity and The Jason Spooner Band, are days away from their yearly show. On Friday at the State Theatre, they will back eight rising singers in this city.
Now in its third season, Big Band Syndrome is a spirited night of live music that pays tribute to the local music scene.
“We look at bands that are working very hard to get their name out there,” said Brian Graham, co-leader of The Fogcutters. “These are the cream of the crop.”
And in a city like Portland, where local music has a strong presence, that’s saying something.
“A lot of people look at big band as an old type of music, a dying art form,” said Graham. “You don’t expect to go to a big band concert and dance and rock out, you expect to clap nicely. A big band can play rap, a big band can play rock ’n’ roll.”
And this year, soul funk and synth pop to boot.
As Allen of The Other Bones belts out “The Bad in Goodbye,” the studio begins to shake. Backed by Davidson of Dilly Dilly, Sara Hallie Richardson and Fogcutter vocalist Megan Jo Wilson, it’s a powerful tour de force that her growing fanbase would kill to hear.
To get to this point, the band has been busy.
Turning a song normally performed electronically into a stadium barnburner takes months of practice. All arrangements are written by The Fogcutters, says Graham.
“This is 100 percent original music,” he said.
And that’s the genesis of the project.
A few years ago, Graham, a saxophonist who plays with two other bands, was putting on tribute shows for singers like Michael Jackson around Portland. Then a thought occured.
“Instead of showcasing national acts, why not put a spotlight on local talent?” he said.
The Big Band Syndrome was born. Also on the bill this year is Kenya Hall, Jason Spooner, Syn The Shaman from Trails, Jaw Gems and Lady Lamb The Beekeeper. Each singer will perform two songs with the band. Sponsors for the show, which is expected to sell out, are the design and apparel firm 207 Brand and media partner the Bangor Daily News.
“This is probably the most looked forward to local musical event all year,” said Dan Bodoff, of Maine Digital Press and part of The Fogcutters management team.
Fans will walk away with a fresh perspective of their favorite musicians, Portland’s music scene and big band music circa 2013, he said.
Each performance is personal.
For a rapper like Eldridge of hip-hop duo Trails, who would normally be MCing with a DJ and drum machine, it’s also a tad daunting.
“As a rapper, you kind of feel inferior around all these musicians,” said Eldridge, aka “Syn The Shaman,” who will perform with Shane Reis Friday night. “I’m anxious,” he said at the practice as the assembled group of recent University of Maine and University of Southern Maine grads stood at the ready.
After knocking off two songs, with a pause for the trombone section to step up its boom, he appeared to have found his groove.
“That was awesome. I liked it so much, I got chills,” he said.
Davidson of Dilly Dilly, who typically performs solo with a ukulele and a banjo, also was blown away by the band’s treatment of her song “My Heart is an Idiot.”
“It’s unreal, overwhelming, amazing,” she said. “Not too many people have the opportunity for their songs to be worked big band style.”
And not too many music lovers have the opportunity to hear such a wide-ranging, genre-bending show.
“The Fogcutters should be the type of band to pioneer big band back into the spotlight and while we are at it, why not try to bring as many musicians into the spotlight as possible?” said Graham, who considers this show emblematic of his band as well as Portland’s supportive music scene.
“There is no room for an ego,” he said. “If you have one, you are not going to fit in.”
Big Band Syndrome will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, at the State Theatre, 609 Congress St. in Portland. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 the day of. Buy tickets in person at the Cumberland County Civic Center Box Office or by phone at 800-745-3000.
Big Band Syndrome is sponsored by 207 Brand and the Bangor Daily News.