The Cartridge Family transforms chiptune chirps into riff-filled rock
It’s a sure thing — when you walk into just about any club on George Street on just about any night of the week — that you’ll be met at the door with the unmistakable mingling of sound that is a live band.
However, bar-goers lately have been hearing something a little different — a sound that reaches far back into the days of childhood: anthems that would accompany Italian plumbers journeying to rescue lost princesses; warriors of light on epic quests to free realms enslaved by the forces of darkness; even blue robots fighting to stop the machinations of a mad scientist and his mechanized minions.
This is the call of The Cartridge Family, Newfoundland’s first and only stage act dedicated entirely to playing music from video games. And after more than a year of performances, tonight is shaping up to be their biggest show yet!
It’s called “George Street Fighter” — a full night of entertainment for gamers and fans of music old enough to buy a beer. The festivities are set to include a randomly selected eight player “Super Street Fighter II” tournament, hosted by local gaming podcast “Console Culture”; followed by a performance by Nar Doubt, a Newfoundland tribute to No Doubt, another teenaged treasure from the 1990s.
And, of course, there’s the main event of the evening, a heady performance by The Cartridge Family themselves, transforming chiptune chirps from gaming’s past into riff-filled rock with tracks suggested and voted on by their fans.
“When do you get to go to a bar and partake in a video game tournament?” asks guitarist Dave Walsh, a 31-year-old lifelong gamer who lays down licks at night when he’s not working his day job as development co-ordinator with the Children’s Wish Foundation.
“A franchise like ‘Street Fighter’? It’s a lot of fun. It’s something that’s just totally different from going to a bar and hearing music and drinking beer, or listening to a DJ or grooving to dance music.”
Being different is a big part of what makes a Cartridge Family show something special. They’ve played gigs where so many members of the crowd showed up wearing costumes that it inspired a Halloween show complete with costume contest.
Walsh excitedly describes future plans to have local gamers step up to complete a playthrough while the band rips through the soundtrack in time with the action.
“‘Mega Man III’ had a great soundtrack,” says Walsh. “We know a guy who can do 'Double Dragon II,' we know a guy who’s really good with Mike Tyson’s ‘Punch Out.’”
Leon White, The Cartridge Family’s other guitarist, is a passionate 27-year-old musician who speaks as reverently about “Legend of Zelda” composer Kōji Kondō (Dark World Theme, represent, yo!) as he does Frank Zappa or "Speed Metal" guru Marty Friedman.
Out of the blue, he starts to hammer out the first level theme of “Double Dragon.” As Walsh jumps in for a harmony, Leon slyly switches gears and dives into the main theme of Konami’s “The Goonies II,” a long-forgotten pseudo-sequel to the 1985 hit movie that was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
“A lot of people think game music and they just hear ‘bleeps’ and ‘bloops.’” White explains with a chuckle. “But if you sit down and listen to it, there’s a really thick sound.
“Believe me — playing the music from ‘Castlevania’ is as hard as the game ever was.”
Even a loose jam with just two members of the band (sadly, prior commitments kept me from speaking with bassist Jordan Young and drummer Mike Dinn) breathes new life into long-dormant gaming experiences I would’ve thought were lost to the ether.
Both Walsh and White talk about the first time they heard Nobuo Oematsu’s “Terra’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VI with the joy of kids just discovering The Beatles, Pink Floyd, UFO, Miles Davis, BB King … whatever one’s musical preference may be.
They are a band as passionate about music as they are youths passionate about gaming.
Before we switch off the mike and Walsh takes me over to see his impressive collection of NES games, he adds, “It’s a style of music that brings us back to a time when we were more carefree. It’s like getting lost in a movie. You get transported to another world. We’re just trying to recapture a bit of that nostalgia, and God love music fans for coming out to support what we do.
“If we can have a bit of fun, and let our fans have a bit of fun, play some games, listen to some music and maybe even win a few prizes, we’d love to keep doing it.”
The band is always looking for new ways to add something to the show, says Walsh, including talking with gamers from Gander or Corner Brook who’d love them to come out and do a show.
“We really thought this would be a one-off thing, but gamers really got behind us. As long as people stay interested, this is only the beginning, man. This is just Level 1.”
Be sure to throw up your dukes with The Cartridge Family tonight at The Rockhouse, with special guests Nar Doubt, and a live “Super Street Fighter II” tournament.
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Walking through the wastes of the digital frontier, Jon Mercer fights a lonely war against the nefarious agents of boredom and mediocrity. If you seek his help, or wish to join his cause, send a communiqué via email@example.com.