Vasti at ELLA Music festival
11 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3
1013 E. Colonial Drive
Out here in a planned community at the border of Orange and Osceola counties, in the shadow of Lake Nona, everything is perplexingly bipolar: Bulls and horses graze at the edge of fields that abruptly end where the CVS pharmacy begins. Vast expanses of gorgeous, open land are peppered by the occasional (and only occasional) fast food restaurant or golf course. The effect at dusk in this nowhere is alternately breathtaking and cynically sobering. It's also the sort of place that one can imagine turns horror-movie chilling at night.
"You live in the middle of nowhere," I say as I greet John Paul Ramos, whose parents are the homeowners out here.
"Maybe it's the middle of everywhere," his sister offers. But I've seen the middle of everywhere, and it looks nothing like this. Everything is different here and the feeling pierces the air like a gathering force. I'm here to watch Ramos and four others, collectively Vasti, practice. A copy of this newspaper from last year sits by itself on a glass table where my chair awaits. On the cover, Ramos and his defunct band, Baron Von Bear, look back at me. It feels hostile.
Finally Laiza Rodriguez introduces herself, and her pinkish-purple boots and warm, nervous smile chase away the willies. The 24-year-old Puerto Rican from Philly grabs a guitar and starts wailing, backed by Ramos on keyboards, his ex-Baron Von Bear bandmate Craig Muir on lead guitar, the quiet Geo Ponce on bass and local solo standout Peter Baldwin, sprightly, possessed even, at the drums. In the next half-hour, Ramos' sister will join in on flute and a comically unending prop chest of instruments will be employed — trombone, xylophone, effects pedals, melodica — in service of songs still in the hatchling stage. The songs hint at Celia Cruz one moment, Link Wray or Edith Piaf the next, but all point at Rodriguez in compositional vector lines that direct your eye to Vasti's real star. Baldwin refers to their practices as the LBC: Laiza boot camp.
Rodriguez has reason to seem so elated during the rehearsal. A restless artist who recalls an "arrogant" youth surrounded by music and church, she cut her teeth performing spoken word and hip-hop for Orlando Christian rappers Group 1 Crew until, from her late teens to early 20s, she hit a writing block.
"When I was 19, I was trying to understand God's love for me and I was reading the book of Hosea," says Rodriguez. "Hosea's this minor prophet who married this prostitute because God told him to marry a prostitute. And then Hosea was like, ‘OK, this is crazy. I'll do it.' And it was all to teach the Israelites how God loved them regardless of their infidelities. It was all just to help me with a lot of pain in that time."
Rodriguez developed a passion for helping women caught up in the sex trade, which gave her a new perspective that unlocked her writing again. She says that was aided by her parents' escape from a "crazy" church, which enabled a healing process for all of them after years of abuse. She wrote songs about spirituality and heartbreak with a blues and torch bent and eventually teamed up with an enraptured Baldwin and Ramos.
"It was a lot of ‘Holy crap, you are so freaking good,"' says Ramos of the first time they saw Rodriguez play in the parking lot at Natura Coffee and Tea. "That's when we knew we needed to do something together."
"In the parking lot she played `a Rodriguez original` ‘Devil's Son,' and I kid you not, it was like a musical. All these people gathered around while she was playing," says Baldwin. "That part was kind of dramatic."
Eventually they brought on Muir and Ponce, and Vasti was born. It's a sweet story, one that brings Rodriguez obvious joy, yet once it's done the mood in the house shifts toward something stranger and almost unsettling. Having spoken with three of Vasti's bandmates on previous occasions, the difference is noticeable. Maybe it's a particularly trying Monday, or maybe it's something about this schizophrenic part of Narcoossee Road, but the way the others cuddle up on the leather sofa with Baldwin lying down on the floor, crashing from the rehearsal high and turning sour, suddenly suggests an infantilized slumber party. Deference to Rodriguez curdles into reticence, then impenetrable sarcasm and finally a quiet cockiness, the kind that allows the band to be dismissive about the suggestion that they might be nervous playing venues like Hard Rock Live, the Plaza Theatre and the ELLA festival while still trying to find their identity.
"The solution to that is using all the practices to write songs instead of practicing for the shows," says Baldwin.
"With our live shows, we try to bring a lot of energy into it so I don't really ever think about that," says Muir, once a bassist with BVB, now given the opportunity to shred in unexpected, impressive ways. "It's just like, ‘Let's rock the fuckin' house.'"
Ramos, a genial host and musical savant, remains tight-lipped. Although he serves many roles in the group, including Rodriguez's boyfriend, he admits he experiments with so many instruments during a song because he doesn't have to keep the rhythm. As with Baldwin, Ramos plans to continue with his own music. Ramos' words are carefully thought out and punctuated by long pauses between them.
"I think that this music that I am involved in right now with Vasti has a lot of potential and `it` would be unwise for me not to be involved in it," he sputters. There's definitely something in the air.
But it always comes back to Rodriguez, and she's perfectly fine with that.
"Am I comfortable with that role? `My bandmates` make it comforter," she stutters, and with that, the Vasti team comes to life again. Ramos bursts with laughter at her error and Muir nails an impression of Rodriguez' slight-yet-distinct accent. The bizarre discomfort that marked so much of the night flits away, however briefly, and in the moment Vasti allows itself to be seen for what it is: a group of friends who make solid music together. It's great fun to watch, but maybe they don't know that yet.
(ELLA Music Festival with Vasti, Sarah Purser, the Actomatics, Sunny Raskin, Geri X, Chasing Jonah, Lauren Carder and the Multiple Me, Jehn Cerron, Kaleigh Baker, Amy Steinberg, Sammy Witness, Jessica Dye, Keats' Handwriting; Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 1-3, at the Cameo Theatre, 1013 E. Colonial Drive; all ages; $10-$40; for information on parties, workshops, market and speakers, visit www.ellamusicfest.com.)[email protected]