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Downplay to perform for Capitol Records scout

By Guy D'Astolfo

Thursday, November 20, 2008

By Guy D’Astolfo

The addition of Mike Mealey has been a catalyst.

When a record company representative wants to see your band, but you have no gig scheduled, you go out and find a place to play.

Downplay found itself in that situation a couple of weeks ago after the act caught the ear of Kim Stevens of Capitol Records. Stevens said he’d be coming to Ohio this weekend to catch the band.

Downplay already had a gig lined up Saturday in its homebase of Columbus, playing before the Ohio State University football faithful outside the stadium. There will be a little game inside the Horseshoe that day: the Buckeyes against their archrivals from Michigan.

Not a good idea. When the man says “show me what you got,” you do not want to be playing “Hang On Sloopy” for the tailgaters.

So Downplay scrambled to find a place in another town where it has home-field advantage: Salem. After some searching, it settled on the Salem Elks Lodge — one of the few places in town that can stage a rock show with room for 300 to 400 people — and will play there Friday night.

The band is comprised of Dustin Bates (vocals) and Brandon Hill (drums), both of Salem; Chad White (bass), of Toledo; Nick Kiser (lead guitar), of Columbus; and Mike Mealey (rhythm guitar), of Cleveland.

Bates and Hill have been playing together since their days at Salem High School. They attended Ohio University together, where they formed Downplay.

While the quartet is top dog in Athens and Columbus, and has deep support in Kent, Toledo and other Ohio cities (including Salem, of course), it’s still an unknown quantity in Youngstown. It has played at the Cellar in the past, but never really found a venue where it would comfortably fit in the regular rotation.

As a result, Downplay might be the best regional band you’ve never heard of — for now. It has a crunchy, guitar-driven sound with songs that would be instantly at home on active-rock radio.

Mealey, an alumnus of Cleveland emo act Between Home and Serenity, is a recent addition to the band. He shares songwriting duties and frontman status with Bates, and has made an immediate impact.

“We knew Mike would make the other guys come alive on stage,” said Bates. “They feed off his energy.”

Mealey’s introduction was made by band manager Ken Cooper, who was the frontman for Sin-O-Matic, the Youngstown-based band that flirted with fame at the turn of the century. Cooper had most recently been president of Cleveland- and Nashville-based Rust Records before the company’s demise a year ago.

“Mike was always an over-the-top spectacle and Dustin is a crazy frontman,” said Cooper. “I didn’t have to give them the Rock 101 lesson. They had it already.”

The two have been writing songs separately, but are beginning to collaborate more. “We are each other’s biggest critics,” said Mealey. “We’ve raised the bar pretty high. If Dustin likes something I’ve written, I know it must be pretty good.”

Like his band, Bates also has a dual nature. The rocker has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and at one point taught at a university in France. In 2004, he led an Ohio University team to victory in a nationwide engineering contest by inventing an “autonomous” lawn mower that utilized a GPS system.

He admits that he went to OU to escape the down and dusty Mahoning Valley. The party atmosphere of Athens brought the once-quiet student out of his shell, although the gritty nature of his hometown still colors his music.

Downplay was actually set to do the showcase performance in Athens a few weeks ago, when Stevens, the Capitol talent scout, got sick. “We could have had 1,200 people at Athens,” said Cooper.

Stevens has “great ears,” according to Cooper. “He is the one who signed Matchbox Twenty, Seven Mary Three and Saving Abel.”