The 1990s alternative-music scene is set for a return engagement downtown in the form of a museum exhibit. “Figurehead: Music & Mayhem in Orlando’s Underground” opens at the Orange County Regional History Center on Saturday. Sept. 10.
“I feel like in the ‘90s — in the earlier part of the 90s, especially — there’s so much activity going on here, and there’s so much promise for what’s to come,” said Jeremy Hileman, assistant curator.
The exhibit centers on concert promoter Figurehead, which helped cultivate a music subculture that took in the sounds of Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Drivin N Cryin, Jonathan Richman and others.
“There are obviously other styles of music and other things going on at the time,” Hileman said. “There are certainly other people who promoted shows before and after, but we really wanted to highlight this story because we felt it was really compelling.”
Making visual impact for this music-based event are photographs by Jim Leatherman and distinctive concert posters donated by former Figurehead owner Jim Faherty, who worked with the history center on an unrelated previous project.
“I think he recognized the significance of the art and the efforts that went into it. I think he is sort of a collector by nature,” Hileman said.
“I was in the midst of trying to move all of my memorabilia because I was a hoarder and I just kept every poster, every ticket stub, everything,” Faherty said. “I was trying to just eat it, burn it, get rid of it, move it. And it was, like, perfect timing because he [Hileman] said, ‘Hey, you got, like, 10 posters you can donate?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely,’ and I donated, literally, a big truckload.”
To create the promotional posters back in the day, Faherty recruited local graphic designers and artists, some of whom also were musicians and part of the scene.
“Organically, everybody started meeting everybody. So each person would like to pick the style of music and the style of show that they liked,” he said.
“Basically, I would just tell them, ‘Hey, man, I’ll print it. I’ll give you a lot of copies of it.’ So they never got paid for actually doing the poster. And I paid to print it, because back then it was super expensive,” Faherty said. “It was a kind of win-win. They got free tickets to the concert. A lot of them got other jobs from other bands from it.”
The history center exhibit concentrates on the era between 1985 and 2001. It includes participation, either via written interview or as an oral history, by Richman, Lydia Lunch, Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20, Henry Rollins of Black Flag, Kevn Kenny of Drivin N Cryin, Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, Jason Ross of Orlando-based Seven Mary Three and others.
“We’ll have several listening stations. Several of them are clips from oral-history interviews,” Hileman said. “We’ll also have a display of releases from the Figurehead record label, and there’ll be an opportunity to listen to some of the tracks from that as well.”
Also interviewed was Shayni Rae, who co-owned Sapphire Supper Club in downtown Orlando with Faherty.
“She has had a lot of great insight into the stories, and a lot of other people who in some way, touch the story,” Hileman said.
But what about that “mayhem” in the exhibit’s title? Hileman recaps an evening that involved an oversold concert, destruction of property (bathroom and ceiling), fights, police cars and ambulances.
“That really sets the scene from the beginning of how chaotic a lot of things were in the early part of Figurehead kind of being the punk scene,” Hileman said. “I mean, it would evolve in a lot of ways to where they did a lot of styles of music, but I think those kind of early shows where both the music and the scene that was represented was very chaotic.
“The people who are putting on these shows are very young and inexperienced. So they don’t maybe take the proper precautions that a more seasoned promoter would,” he said.
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“When I moved here, we never used security,” Faherty said. “I didn’t know there were skinheads in Florida. So, there was a lot of naiveness to the situation.”
Eventually, Figurehead was promoting 10-12 concerts and events per week in Central Florida, Faherty said.
“We were doing shows at Visage and the Edge. We were doing Sunset Serenade at the Peabody Hotel,” he said. “In one night, like, Indigo Girls was doing Jamaican Me Crazy … and I was doing a show at Sapphire and a show at Beacham.”
A showcase such as Figurehead Night Out would draw 700-800 people, Faherty said.
“The shows were big because that was our social network,” he said. “There’s so much diversity between someone who likes REM and someone who likes Black Flag. Those people are coming into both shows, though. They didn’t care. They just wanted to be in the alternative scene.”
The exhibit is included with regular museum admission. Orange County Regional History Center, located in downtown Orlando, has related programming — from Friday’s opening bash to panel discussions and trivia happy hours — set through the end of the year. The exhibit is scheduled to be in place through September 2023. For tickets or more information, go to thehistorycenter.org.
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