Big Fame, Smallen Ego 

Street to Nowhere came out of an Oakland high school, signed with Capitol, and can barely buy booze.

History is being made tonight. Major-label Oakland pop-punk bands the Matches and Street to Nowhere, friends since high school, share the Great American Music Hall stage in San Francisco for the first time. And Dave Smallen is nervous as hell.

"Before every show, I pretty much go through a whole checklist of things that could go wrong," he says. "Between our soundcheck and when we play, I have a good hour of anxiety." Smallen was more relaxed a few days ago. In fact, the 21-year-old frontman and sole songwriter for Street to Nowhere was downright blithe about the concert's momentous lineup. "I feel like it makes sense, with where we're both at right now."

Don't blame Smallen for not grasping the gravity of the situation. He's still absorbing fortunes from ten months ago — things like selling out the Bottom of the Hill for his debut's release party, filling even bigger venues across the country with Arizona indie rockers the Format, and receiving contract offers from a number of major labels. Yeah, it's been a good year.

Tonight is the culmination of it all. Officially it's a CD release show for headliners the Matches, whose second Epitaph Records album Decomposer dropped September 12. But it's also a coming-out party for Street to Nowhere, which is playing only its second concert in the Bay Area since signing to Capitol in June and earning a gaggle of national fans during its summer tour.

When Smallen takes the stage around nine, his nervousness doesn't show. Perhaps he's comforted by the presence of his bandmates — guitarist Will Hauser, bassist Bryce Freeman, and drummer Joey Bustos. Each night when they leave the stage for his solo acoustic song, he wants to beg them to stay. Perhaps he's remembering something his dad once told him: "You're only nervous because you care." Missteps so small as singing a note too breathily give Smallen pause. He believes that "the biggest thing about being a professional musician is being able to not show when you're messing up."

If he does fail to veil an error, his fans will love him for it. Smallen has earned his bashful boy-next-door persona through passionate performances and the tattered good looks of a thrift-shop heartthrob. Every quirk fits into Smallen's milieu of imperfection. He did, after all, name his debut record Charmingly Awkward. If the fawning teens smashed up against the stage ever catch him in a moment of awkwardness, they'll embrace it. Because that's how they feel too.

"I find his energy absolutely phenomenal," says eighteen-year-old Jeff Clements, who's seen Smallen play six or seven times. "You can tell when he's singing, he's so into it. He just shakes sometimes." The shaking is no act: Street to Nowhere songs are directly therapeutic. "Anxiety causes songwriting," Smallen says. "It's an escape, a way to deal with it."

Charmingly Awkward is so instilled with folk and emo pathos that "pop-punk" could never adequately frame it. Producer Matt Radosevich — a fellow Bishop O'Dowd alum — helped Street to Nowhere make a record that, despite costing only a couple thousand dollars and being partially recorded in living rooms and parents' basements, sounds as clean as any major-label release. While courting Street to Nowhere, Capitol offered to release the record exactly as-is. Amazingly, the label stuck to its promise. The only differences between the original November 2005 self-release and the August 29 rerelease are a logo, a barcode, and a Parental Advisory sticker — What's the use in saying "Fuck you"? he wonders in "Waste My Life for You." If I say "fuck you," I'll never fuck you.

Street to Nowhere's MySpace page is overrun with young girls, but Smallen's anxiety persists. "I'm definitely not used to being the center of attention in any way," he says. "It went from working really hard and a few people recognizing the band to sitting down at meals with big-time record-exec folks." There have been telltale steps along the way, such as winning the 2004 Live 105 Battle of the Bands. Yet recent successes have meant big changes for a kid who's more accustomed to playing sidewalks and parking lots than venues like the Great American.

"There are a few different personalities buried in Dave," recognizes Shawn Harris, lead singer of the Matches. On one hand, he's fascinated by the pained mythology of Kurt Cobain and the dark imagery of Leonard Cohen. On the other, he's a self-confident singer writing some insanely catchy songs.

Smallen hangs out alone near his merch table as the Matches take the stage. For the moment, he's just a fan watching high school friends perform. Next month, Street to Nowhere embarks on a tour with English postpunk group the Futureheads, and Smallen's world will grow even bigger. Deep down will still be the insecurities of a shy kid on the path to fame. But when he says "I'm happier than I've ever been," it's obvious he really is.

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