Ah, the Battle of the Bands. Whether an attempt to perform a “most triumphant” rock concert in order to deliver mankind from a grisly alternate destiny (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), or taking on The River Bottom Nightmare Band to earn enough cash to buy a piano for your Muppet mother (Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas), the time-honored tradition maintains a special place in the hearts and minds of music fans. And not just those who watch too much Saturday afternoon television . . . ahem.
In this very column last week, I reported that I’d be judging a Battle of the Bands at Saint Michael’s College. Despite my reservations about participating in the unseemly union of competition and art, I was eager to catch a glimpse of the music currently being created in the hallowed halls of our institutions of higher education. It’s been a few years since my cameo appearance at UVM. So, as I ventured into St. Mike’s McCarthy Arts Center last Thursday, I wondered how much the scene had changed since those halcyon days of Sublime, Strangefolk and Phish knockoffs populating the quads and student lounges of Groovy Uvee. The answer: not much, apparently.
By and large, the proceedings were marked by a handful of pretty generic “college bands.” While aimless, meandering funk and jammy noodling certainly pleased the crowd’s head-bobbing broseph contingent, by and large it seems as though college rock hasn’t really evolved in the last 10 years or so — or, since most of these whippersnappers were 8 years old. But perhaps I’m just dating myself.
Heady dude-rock aside, the evening was not without its more interesting moments. In a rather unexpected turn, third-place finishers Mike Check weren’t even technically a “band,” per se. The group represented that unique collegiate musical subset, the all-male a cappella group. While they won’t be giving Rockapella a run for their money anytime soon, the boys — bizarrely bedecked in costumes that crossed The Village People with the cast of Flashdance — served up a quintessentially cutesy set of pop covers, and even a passable barbershop number. They were easily a crowd favorite. But I’m guessing the UVM Top Cats and Middlebury’s Dissipated 8 can rest easy . . . for now.
Taking home the silver was an appropriately groovy UVM outfit, The Sepia Tones. The pop-funk quartet was probably the tightest outfit on the bill — “tightness” was actually a judging criteria. Having spent the last year or so gigging on and off campus, they were also the most polished group, delivering a sound vaguely reminiscent of Portland, Maine’s Rustic Overtones — speaking of late-’90s college faves.
The winner was an energetic outfit called Fink. An obvious hometown crowd-pleaser, the SMC collective balanced relatively sharp jam tendencies with smart, almost anthemic rock not so far afield from pop-rock gurus Spoon. They also provided the best moment of the evening.
The battle’s organizers were rigid — almost to the point of obnoxiousness — about keeping each band’s set time within the designated 10 minutes. After flashing the houselights as a warning, on a number of occasions they simply turned out the lights altogether, often in mid-song. It would have been humorous in an exit-music-at-the-Oscars sort of way, were it not so ham-fisted and borderline rude. But in an act of teen-movie-inspired defiance, Fink — the evening’s last act — refused to be silenced. With the crowd in a legitimate(ish) frenzy, they continued rocking well past lights-out, winning the hearts of the audience and judges alike. Rock and effin’ roll.
One other act of note was the evening’s first entrant, experimental rock duo Maga. They likely didn’t score as highly as they should have, but that was perhaps more a result of unfortunate mixing-board follies than their ability. Alternating among guitar, piano, drums and some spacey percussion looping, the decidedly un-groovy UVM outfit delivered the night’s most ambitious set. But, given the crowd’s thirst for more conventional fare, that likely worked against them. In a more appropriate setting — i.e., one in which you could actually hear the vocals — they would definitely be a band to catch.
KIDS IN THE HALL
Last spring, I reported on a curious night of comedy and improv at beloved Burlington live-music landmark Nectar’s. Though it often flies under the radar — perhaps because the music editor at this alt-weekly is the only person who writes about it with any regularity — Vermont actually has a pretty solid standup comedy scene. Who knew? Oh, right. I did.
Anyway, the evening I’m referring to was coordinated by two young aspiring comics, James Huessy and Mike Thomas. I caught the latter — once again as a judge, believe it or not — at last winter’s Higher Ground Comedy Battle. Apparently, the night was such a success that Nectar’s has tabbed the high schoolers to continue the show as an ongoing series. So, from now until the end of time — or at least graduation, I suppose — the first Tuesday of every month will be a standup-comedy free-for-all at the house that Phish built. Huessy and Thomas will handle emcee duties and will be joined by the Essex High School Varsity Improv Team. But 90 minutes is a long time to be funny, so the night will also serve as a comedy open mike.
Perhaps due to tryptophan-induced food comas, Thanksgiving week is traditionally one of the slowest for local music. Though the calendar is admittedly a tad light, there are still plenty of options for those seeking relief from Black Friday madness. Among the better choices . . .
If it’s tongue-in-cheek New Wave you seek, you’d be well served checking out Anaïs Mitchell’s all-star ’80s tribute Sputnik! as they travel the highways and byways of Vermont this week. The righteous babe is once again stateside following a European tour opening for chamber-folk darlings Bon Iver. Catch them Friday at Langdon Street Café and/or Saturday at The Monkey House.
This Saturday night, those with a thirst for “Smokey Melodies and Shadowy Ambience” should swing by The Bakery on North Winooski Avenue in Burlington to catch a collaboration between Chicago’s Kranky Records and local online champions of “other music,” Aether Everywhere. Slated to appear are psychedelic minimalist Boduf Songs, loop-laden Pitchfork darlings To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie, and local experimental guru Greg Davis, performing with longtime collaborator Ben Vida.
One show you probably won’t get to see is Leon Redbone this Saturday at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. As of this writing, the next installment of the venerable After Dark Music Series is four tickets away from a sellout. Congrats!
And speaking of shows you can’t see, the Bonjour-Hi! electronica series Sunday nights at Nectar’s is no more. In its place, the increasingly popular Family Night Jam Sessions will move from Tuesday to Sunday.