Ernest Hemingway once said: “There are only four sports: bullfighting, motor racing, mountaineering, and battles of the bands; all the rest are merely games.” Well, maybe he didn’t actually say that last part, but perhaps he would have had he attended even one of GenSF’s Battles of the Bands at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. This event is one of the best places to see young Bay Area talent in action, but it is probably better known as a battlefield. 2010’s Battle of the Bands was known for its backstage arguments; 2011’s saw former St. Valentinez singer Nick Martin and his Romance of Thieves ensemble battling his old band following a less-than-amicable split. This sort of juicy teenage drama is a blogger’s dream, and I came to 2012’s Battle of the Bands expecting to capitalize on it as I did on last year’s. Though this did not happen, I was in for a treat: this was possibly the tightest Battle of the Bands I have ever attended, one in which the competition was as vital as the talent.
* * *
Freshman-age classic-rock cover band Marshall Deadwood opened the set with a competent cover of Etta James’ “Something’s Got A Hold On Me.” Though their performance wasn’t terrible, it’s tough ground for cover bands in the competitive world of band-battling, and Marshall Deadwood did not make it past the first round.
Parallax, a two-guitar, one-drummer trio, would have benefitted tremendously from a bassist to anchor their meandering psychedelic jams. Though their performance would likely have been greatly augmented by this addition, they were easily outshined by the similar but tighter and far more interesting Comodo Complex.
Though the Feds didn’t win, they had the right stuff to--this was a band that knew how to please a crowd. The San Carlos quartet found they had already delighted the audience with their ‘90s-style power-pop in the first round, and their win was no surprise. In a truly brilliant decision, the second round found the band’s drummer busting a massive solo--an almost inevitable crowd-pleaser. However, the Feds must not have impressed the judges as much as they did the audience, and they did not make it to the final round.
THE INQ (winners)
In the underdog success story of the year so far, this unassuming quartet took to the stage between two bands of similar age and not entirely different sound and rocked their way to the 500-dollar grand prize. The Inq were not the tightest band of the night, nor were they the most technically proficient (both of these awards would have to go to the St. Valentinez), but they were certainly the most unusual and unique, playing jammy rock so straightforward yet so unclassifiable it was difficult to pigeonhole with any label more specific than, say, “garage rock” or (God help us) “indie rock.” The first round saw the audience moderately engaged, more so than during the first two bands’ sets but less so than during the Feds’, but during the second and third rounds, the Inq got the audience on their feet almost as effectively as the Valentinez and even managed to start a reasonably large mosh pit.
Comodo Complex were the first of two bands that had previously competed, the others being last years’ winners the St. Valentinez. Their music was notably tighter than at last year’s set, and despite playing two great tunes, they did not impress the judges as much as the Inq did.
THE ST. VALENTINEZ
“Why y’all sitting?,” went the first words from St. Valentinez frontman Will Randolph’s mouth, and as the audience members slowly lifted themselves from the floor, I got the feeling the battle was over. The undoubted favorites to win, the St. Valentinez had clearly rehearsed for this performance for months, and it showed in every aspect of the set from their songs to their immaculate dress. The musicians’ technical skills well surpassed those of most bands twice their age, and the sound coming from the speakers and amps was so smooth and well-mixed a member of the other bands suggested the Valentinez must have tipped the sound guy. As seamless as the Valentinez’ set was, there was a part of me that didn’t want them to win--if they did, it would be about as much a surprise as Bon Iver topping Pitchfork’s Albums of 2011 list. Though they made it to the finals along with the Inq, their mashup of “All of the Lights” by Kanye West and “Niggas in Paris” by Kanye and Jay-Z did not win them the prize.