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A mass of arctic air has made its descent into Des Moines when Ludo arrives at the House of Bricks. Some 35 hardy Iowan souls who've braved sub-zero weather are scattered around the barroom. By the look of the meager turnout, it's hard to imagine that just three weeks prior a crowd of 2,000 packed the Pageant for the rock band's annual Christmas-themed spectacle.
Lead singer Andrew Volpe takes the stage wearing a bright green cardigan sweater and white dress loafers. Moog player Tim Convy sports a worn yellow T-shirt, while a tear in guitarist Tim Ferrell's jeans reveals the long johns that have come in handy on this frigid night. Ludo launches into their better-known songs as the small crowd nods their approval. With urging from Convy, the audience claps to "Hum Along." Catchy pop-rock with a comic narrative twist, the 2003 tune is one that helped the St. Louis band cement a solid following.
The Des Moines show is part of the quintet's nineteen-city Midwest romp to herald the release of its new album, You're Awful, I Love You, due out on Island Records early next week. Ludo introduces a host of still-unreleased tracks before ending the set with its irreverent cover of Faith No More's "Epic."
Grins break out as people recognize the 1989 alt-metal hit. In arena-rock style, Volpe struts and lunges, his pompadour and thrift-store getup adding to the mocking tone of the performance. As "Epic" reaches full crescendo, Volpe indulges in an extra round of soulful vocals, prompting bassist Marshall Fanciullo — standing back near drummer Matt Palermo — to flash an amused, there-he-goes-again glance.
In an era dominated by overwrought emo acts, Ludo's playfulness drew the attention of label representatives. Before signing with Island in November 2006, the band fielded offers from Capitol Records, as well as three independent labels. Now Ludo stands on the verge of becoming the next big thing from St. Louis.
"I think there's room now for bands that are going to have fun," says Capitol's Jaime Feldman, one of the artist-and-repertoire managers who courted Ludo. "The band has fantastic personality and showmanship," he says. "They have set up a really nice fan base they can build upon in the Midwest."
The last local rock act to seize national attention was Story of the Year, the screamo pioneers whose 2003 debut, Page Avenue, sold nearly 850,000 copies. Ludo is still counting down the days until their own album's release date, but Island's backing is paying off. Top 40 radio stations in Detroit and Atlanta — cities Ludo has never played — are spinning the single "Love Me Dead." At the same time, Island has booked Ludo as the opening act for Presidents of the United States of America, whose self-titled album went double platinum in 1996.
The tour will grant Ludo access to the same crowds who embraced the Presidents when they emerged from the Seattle grunge scene with songs like "Kitty" and "Peaches." Ludo, which takes its name from the gentle monster in the movie Labyrinth, has a similarly quirky appeal. Friends of the band describe its music as "Weezer meets Queen." Absolutepunk.net reviewer Garett Press calls it "nerdy pop-rock." He says, "You picture [Volpe] being a skinny dude with glasses, but at the same time, he can wail."
Tim Ferrell says the band has paid its dues. "If this takes off, people will say we came out of nowhere." But, he adds, "We slept on floors for five years."
The story of the power-pop quintet that pulled itself up by the guitar strap is a lesson in how any band succeeds these days. Ludo has toured constantly enough to wear out two vans over the past four years. They'd go anywhere — Leavenworth, Kansas, or Wheaton, Illinois — just to reach an audience and peddle its self-produced CD, Ludo.
Phil Kosch of Chicago-based Treaty of Paris says he knew Ludo was driven when it agreed on short notice to join his band for a free show in Naperville, Illinois. "They were just taking every opportunity to build [audiences] up here," he says. "We kind of neglected to tell them it was under a canopy, next to a river with this really bad sound system. They sold $500 worth of merch and did really well."
Ludo worked up to dates on the Vans Warped Tour and sought-after venues like Mississippi Nights. The band surprised and impressed critics with its follow-up album in 2005, a five-song rock opera about a heartbroken time traveler, Broken Bride. The EP incorporated a range of musical influences and reinforced Ludo's reputation for having theatrical flair. Absolutepunk's press raved that the band had delivered the perfect concept album, calling them "great storytellers."
While awaiting the release of You're Awful, which was to come out last fall, the group made its own video to promote its first single. Band members ham it up while brushing their teeth, and fans, who submitted clips, lip-synch "Love Me Dead" in front of bathroom mirrors. Fans flocked to the "tooth-brushing video" on YouTube. Then at live shows, they snatched up $1 toothbrushes stamped with Ludo's double-cherry logo.