Mark Huff - Las Vegas Singer/Songwriter
by Lee Abraham
The day-glow green flower pattern on the dancer's thong bikini radiates with the pulse of the black light strobe. She sways slowly and seductively to the relentless beat of the drums. Deeply tanned and curvy, the dancing diva/shot girl interrupts her gyrations to accommodate a wide-eyed and open-mouthed young man on his knees before her. She pours a provocatively arched, steady stream of liquor down his throat. The lights are flashing, the music thumping… a big, burly, longhaired muscle man with his shirt off struts across the dance floor, looking for all the world like Tarzan in search of Jane. Yeah baby, its Friday night in Las Vegas!
Mark Huff smiles from the elevated stage at the Beach, a dance club/meat market staging his "showcase" performance for the EAT'M (Emerging Artists Through Music) Conference recently held in the neon city. The performance had morphed into a scene from a Fellini film, surreal, colorful and open to interpretation. Huff and his band are all grins as they kick out blistering versions of their distinctively rootsy and melodic tunes.
"Thanks for comin' out tonight," Huff says after the last song, making eye contact with some of the audience nearest the stage, "It means a lot to me." Although the audience responds enthusiastically, clapping, whistling, nodding to each other in agreement that a really good band had just left the stage, very few can appreciate just how much Huff means what he says, the commitment he brings to each performance.
"On the wall the numbers how they fall
and you seem so used up by it all
it's no wonder I can't make it home tonight
the sound of thunder conscience echoes in my mind
it's always something, its always you
you always had something to hold on to." -Thunder Conscience
-Music Junkies and Hash Browns-
Over the years, Huff has taken his act on the road, playing coffeehouses in Greenwich Village and several other New York City venues as well as throughout the western states and Europe. He has released two independently produced CD's on his own Exodus Records label and has opened Las Vegas area concerts for music legends like Bob Dylan, Little Feat and the Doobie Brothers. He is so closely associated with the Las Vegas scene that Rolling Stone magazine quoted him last year as part of a feature on "Sin City, Entertainment Capitol of the World."
These days Huff is focused on perfecting his constantly evolving live sound. Built around his acoustic rhythm guitar and gritty vocals, Huff's music has always been from the heart, but over the past year or so, the energy behind the music seems to have taken on a greater urgency, a more compelling wavelength. "My idea of success is doing what you do and doing it well," Huff says sincerely during a discussion over breakfast inside the Huntridge Drug Store's small restaurant area.
Looking over his plate of eggs and hash browns, Huff seems comfortably at home in this obscure, yet totally Las Vegas setting. The heat rising off his piping hot cup of coffee dances as he speaks through it from across the table, "I look at songwriting as a craft, the way anybody would look at a carpenter or an auto mechanic. You want to do it well and better than you did it before and if its what you truly love, you don't want to stop."
"I'm a music junkie," confesses the Huff, lighting a cigarette as if to savor the breakfast afterglow, in the process looking like a cross between a young Bob Dylan and a sober Johnny Rotten, wiry, intense and philosophical. "I've been buying records or asking my folks to buy records for me since I was six years old. Whenever I saw a band on TV or heard a song on the radio that I liked, that was always a big thing for me, to go out and buy that record. I worked in record stores too, just so I could have access to that."
Listening to records soon led to checking out live music. "When I was a kid around twelve or thirteen I started going to concerts, and I used to go early, to watch the last part of the stage set-up and then when the lights came down and these guys would come out with their guitars or whatever and I thought it was just the coolest thing."
-"Hey listen, we got someone playin' up here…"-
Writing songs has always been a natural for Huff, maybe because he always has something to say. Originally a lyricist, Huff quickly advanced to writing music as well and was soon penning complete songs, songs that not only brought personal satisfaction, but also quick recognition from other musicians.
"I really admire Mark as a songwriter, both melodically and musically, he's really strong fundamentally and I just like him," says Conni Emerson, winner of Scope Magazine's "Best Female Solo Artist" and "Best Folk Rock Band" awards. "I really love his solo shows, I mean I love him in a band too, but when you see Mark solo, its like you get to know him, he's so in the moment and a great communicator. Sometimes you can see a thought come into his and then leave it without him saying a word."
Its obvious that Huff makes a conscious attempt to connect with his audience, an occasionally difficult task that has been known to bring out the best in him. The more intense the energy, the funnier Huff gets, a talent that has made fans of the many musicians he has shared the stage with. Chris King is an emerging force on the local scene and he credits Huff as an influence and in a sense, a role model.
"Mark has a really good repore with the audience, he's real demanding of the audience too, which I find really interesting," explains King, "If he doesn't have their attention, he'll make sure he calls them out. He'll do that for other people too, which I think is really cool, you know, if you're playing and people are talking he'll say something like "hey listen, we got someone playin' up here,' which I think is great."
"Took a long drag from my cigarette
watching the smoke rise above my head
thinking about all the things you said
and all the things I'll live to regret." -Falling Through The Cracks
-Wedding Chapels, Peep Shows and Other Stimulants-
The industrial warehouse complex is an expansive grid of asphalt, painted block walls and tall rolling metal garage doors. A group of about five guys are laughing, talking and smoking cigarettes in front of a warehouse storage unit. Mark Huff and his band are taking a break during rehearsal.
Inside, the converted studio is large and dark. The ceiling is way the hell up there, maybe 25 feet high or so. All of the walls are painted black. Multi-colored Christmas lights flicker along the perimeter of the cavernous ceiling, forming a dancing, rectangular frame around the large heart shaped arrangement of red lights at the ceiling's center. A few black lights are also on, giving the room an ambience somewhere between a drive-through wedding chapel and an adult bookstore's peep show. Guitars, amplifiers, keyboards, tape machines and all sorts of drums are scattered around the room. It's hard to walk around without tripping over an instrument or getting tangled in a cable.
After another set the band heads back to the asphalt alley for more smokes. Most of the conversation is about the songs, the sound of the band and upcoming gigs. After a few minutes, the talk gets around to the upcoming CD. A project Huff has been calling "Skeleton Faith."
"Recording is great but it's a chore," says Huff as he leans against the wall, "its hard work, its tedious, boring and a lot of sitting around. Its nice to hear it when it's done, but when you're doing its not always fun."
"What I do exists on the stage, first and foremost," Huff is on a roll now, obviously a bit pumped from the productive rehearsal. "That's the payoff. You can sit in your room for a couple of days or a week or two or whatever and you write songs. Then you go out and play those songs live. You know, its fleeting, but its so instant, you just got to play live often enough to keep the energy up there. Its just like any stimulant."
"When your heroes have fallen around you
and your conscience is hit with a fiery dart
when your counterfeit idols can't help you
you need rehabilitation of the heart" -Rehabilitation of the Heart
-"So If This Guy Is So Amazing, How Come He Doesn't Have a Major Label Record Deal?"-
"We did some showcases for Capitol a couple of years ago," says Huff, "they were interested in doing some stuff but they wanted me to play with a band they would put together, which is something that I won't do. We also did a show for Elektra around that same time, but that didn't pan out. I've had a couple of offers from different indie labels but they couldn't do anything for me that I'm not already doing through Exodus Records."
With his own label, Huff has been able to maintain creative control, enabling his music to grow and his sound to develop free of pressure to generate record sales. "Getting signed" doesn't appear to be ego thing for Huff, he doesn't seem to need a record deal to get to where he wants to go, but that's not to say that he wouldn't welcome the "right" deal if it were to come along.
"I wanna write songs, play my guitar, go out and sing, play on the road, get on the bus and go here, go there. It's the record company's job to make sure the records get out there to the record stores and radio stations, so that they're available to people. If someone wants to come along and help us out with that it'd be great."
Rather than direct his energy toward "getting signed," Huff has taken the position that "it'll happen if it happens," maintaining that his immediate concern is wrapping up the recording and production for the new CD and getting on the road. Playing live brings everything in Huff's world full circle, back to the stage, back to the Beach, back to the EAT'M showcase performance for music industry bigwigs that might ultimately bring the big, or make that, the "right" deal.
Record deal or not, its clear that making music onstage is what Huff lives for, "The stage is so cool because it can always go in any direction," he says, smiling at the mere thought of performing, "you have to take your chances and just play."