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Claiborne unplugs, and we ask: Just how hot is Hot Topic?


(This is the ninth entry in Soundcheck's summer concert series, The 50-50 Club. For previous entries, click here.)

People – and when I say "people," I mean, "people who own at least three Neil Young records" – are convinced Hot Topic sucks. That it's soulless, shallow, consumerist and 100 percent poseriffic.

I could not disagree more. When I was a teenager, way back in the 1990s, my mall didn’t have a Hot Topic, but OMIGOD, do I wish it did. For instance, there was this time when I badly wanted a T-shirt proclaiming my love for the Verve, and I could not find one. I ended up having to buy one from what must have been the World Wide Web’s first online clothing retailer. I probably ordered it via Blue Mountain Greeting Card.

Today I’m 29, but if I was 17 again*, and I wanted a shirt featuring the Verve – or their modern equivalent, Muse – I’d need only drive to the mall, wade through a sea of Skelanimals totes and Team Edward pins, and find my band’s T-shirt on that massive, glorious wall of silk-screened awesomeness.

This was on my mind as I drove to Clearwater to watch local emo punks Claiborne perform an acoustic set at the Hot Topic store at the Countryside Mall. I felt no shame about enjoying Hot Topic. I don’t think anyone should.

And so I will pose the question: Is Hot Topic really bad for rock ‘n’ roll? Or is it actually quite awesome?

I’d argue for the latter, and here’s why. For the past few months, Hot Topics around the country have been letting local bands play free acoustic sets in their stores on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. The bands get no money for the shows, but they do get the chance to sell merchandise and expose their music to potential new fans.

This in and of itself is a very decent deal. But on top of that, I just flat-out like malls – this is pretty much me on a Saturday – and I think the idea of playing inside one, right across from the Great American Cookie Company, is just fantastic. On Tuesday, I arrived at the Claiborne show about 10 minutes early, which gave me plenty of time to snork down a slice of Sbarro. Score.

But when I walked into Hot Topic afterward, there was no sign of a concert. In fact, I was the only apparent customer.

"When is your next in-store concert?" I asked one of the shaggy-haired kids near the checkout.

"Tonight," he said. "About 10 minutes. Just waiting on our singer."

Turns out the shaggy-haired kid was Scott Black, Claiborne’s drummer. He wasn’t even playing Tuesday, but he still came out to watch singer Tiffany Francum and bassist-turned-acoustic guitarist Danzel Vaughn. (Guitarists Danny Ortiz and Brian McKay were MIA.)

Claiborne is exactly the sort of band Hot Topic is trying to reach with these acoustic shows. They’re young and talented, but they’ve barely gotten their feet off the ground. They’ve produced a six-song EP that’s available on iTunes – but they can’t afford to press copies on CD. The like to play around the state, and their merch sells okay when they do – the band sold about $100 worth at a May 6 Hot Topic show in Bradenton – but their van’s transmission is shot, so they’re stuck with hometown gigs for the time being.

The Clearwater show was Claiborne’s sixth of eight at various Hot Topics around Tampa Bay . One show at the Shops at Wiregrass, near where the band lives, drew a huge crowd. The others have all drawn about 15 or 20.

The gigs have gone pretty well, Scott said. Before and after Tuesday’s show, the store played the band’s EP over and over on the speakers. And this one time, the store let the band put a Claiborne shirt up on the wall while they played. That, Scott told me, was awesome.

Francum arrived around 7:30 p.m. and began setting up the band’s T-shirts and hoodies and her own mic and amp. Vaughn got there a half-hour later, at which point he and Francum sat down to play, surrounded by a handful of fans and friends (including a few guys from Of Angeline).

"Hey everyone," Francum called to the shoppers outside. "Come into Hot Topic. We're about to play an acoustic show." She paused and grinned. "We're Paramore, for those who don’t know."

I don’t think the shoppers bought it. But the duo played anyway.

Unfortunately, after one song, Vaughn snapped a guitar string, bringing the show to a screaming halt. Awk-werrrrd.

"You need to go downstairs to Victoria’s Secret," said friend John Morton-Zeller, "and buy yourself a new G-string."

You can’t write comedy like this. Score another point for mall-based rock ‘n’ roll.

Five minutes later, with a new string strung, Claiborne resumed what would end up being a seven-song, 30-minute set, including a cover of SR-71's Right Now. The sound inside Hot Topic turned out to be decent, which I suppose makes sense, given how thickly the walls are padded with Legend of Zelda T-shirts.

The acoustic versions of Claiborne’s screamish pop-punk seemed to work okay, though I must say, I now kind of want to see the full band live and plugged in. Which is, of course, the point of these acoustic shows in the first place.

If you want to check out Claiborne, they have two Hot Topic shows left: One Wednesday at the Brandon Town Center, and another Thursday at the Gulf View Square Mall in New Port Richey.

But lots of other bands will be playing at 7 p.m. weeknights at Hot Topic stores around Tampa Bay for the foreseeable future. No matter what you think of Hot Topic, you should swallow your cool-kid pride and check out one of these shows. Your street cred will manage to survive.

Besides, it’s pretty clear that Hot Topic knows all the cool kids – and when I say "cool kids," I mean, "people who can name more than two members of Broken Social Scene" – think the store is a joke. But it’s a joke that the store is definitely in on.

Last fall, an episode of South Park mocked kids’ Twilight-fueled obsession with faux vampire chic – plastic fangs, glitter makeup, overgelled hair, and so forth. The goth kids of South Park blamed the fad on – you guessed it – Hot Topic. The episode ended with the goths burning a Hot Topic to the ground.

At Tuesday night’s show, one of the shirts on the wall behind Claiborne featured South Park’s Butters, dressed as a vampire.

If I was 17, I so would have wanted that shirt.

Next up in The 50-50 Club: Singer-Songwriter Night, May 14, Tre Amici @ The Bunker, Ybor City.

-- Jay Cridlin

* Why not? It happened to Zac Efron.

[Last modified: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 9:00am]


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