There are a lot of adjectives that could be applied to the CWMA band showcase on Saturday night at The Complex—but “boring” definitely isn’t one of them. Try "energetic," "engaging" and "passionate" instead. The evening featured sets from Westward the Tide, Wildcat Strike, The North Valley, Baby Gurl and Cornered by Zombies, as well as an interesting progression through genres, beginning with lighthearted folk rock and concluding with hope-crushing metal.
Westward the Tide took the stage first, and in a big way. Violist Jordan Towner kicked off the opening song by banging away at a large floor tom, which got the audience’s attention as effectively as cannon fire. The band’s sound featured the on-point harmonies of guitarists and lead vocalists Jackson Larsen and Kaitie Forbes, with Towner’s viola, Megan Larsen’s backing vocals (and fantastic tambourine/dancing), Cole Herrmann’s bass and Cam Brannelly’s drums completing the full, rich sound.
As evidenced by so many people singing along to Westward the Tide’s tunes, the band was an obvious crowd favorite—Larsen’s announcement of their final song was met with loud booing. And the band members returned the love, warmly interacting with the audience. The best musical moment of their set was the gorgeous chorus of “Young Bodies,” the single from Westward the Tide’s forthcoming new album.
Next up was pop-rock quintet Wildcat Strike, who played with solid skill but probably could’ve benefited from downing some espresso shots before their set. Lead vocalist/guitarist Tony Lake and drummer Joe Plumber were the most animated of the bunch, with Lake belting out the lyrics with gusto and Plumber skillfully executing his intricate percussion.
The keyboard was an important component of the dance-friendly sound, and it was a nice change-up visually and sonically when Lake set aside his guitar to sing and played keys for one song. Both he and regular keyboardist/bassist Will Tuddenham were able to incorporate the instrument effectively throughout the set, and especially during the many anthemic crescendos. The best musical moment was when guitarist Jordan Mendehall broke character on the final song to smack a floor tom, and it would’ve been great to see more of that throughout Wildcat Strike’s performance.
To say that these five dudes love what they do is an understatement; as I watched each of them play their respective instruments with both skill and flair and get the crowd riled up into a dancing frenzy, it was obvious that this is what the members of The North Valley were born to do. The dynamic duo of bassist Dane Sandberg and guitarist Spenny Relyea are a blast to watch as they harmonize together, and play off each other’s energy perfectly. As far as The North Valley’s best musical moment, that epic climax of “You Got That Straight Jake”—from their latest album, Patterns in Retrospect—can’t be beat, and the audience met the key moment with fists in the air.
Chris Wadsworth (bass) and Jordan Fairbanks (drums) sure can burn a lot of musical ground between the two of them, creating mind-bending transitions that almost don’t seem to work but magically turn out all right in the end. Wadsworth was extremely inventive on the bass, playing it in a way that’s entirely unique and often ingenious—Baby Gurl doesn’t need no stinking guitar. The best musical moment was “Tweaker Time,” about waking up in a backyard after a series of meth-related decisions—bird sounds completed the bizarre tableau.
There’s heavy, and then there’s Cornered by Zombies heavy, and the night’s concluding performance by the instrumental thrash-metal duo ended the showcase on an epically infernal note. Basil Eisenman (guitar) and Jason Denney (drums) got down to business immediately, launching into a set that was as heavy as a battering ram. The two musicians are extremely proficient, playing with utmost precision even at high speed: The combo of drums and guitar was (as far as I could hear) flawless and entirely without muddiness.
The music itself was fascinatingly varied, with a lot for the ear to grab onto: Moments of (relative) stillness and subtlety tumbled into avalanche-like climaxes, making nuanced apocalyptic soundscapes. Eisenman and Denney began each song with an attack that was as clean and lethal as an entry wound, but leaving a path of destruction in their wake. And Eisenman was incredible on the guitar, with his fingers flying so fast they seemed to blur together.
A night of incredible talent, the first CWMA band showcase of the year was a smashing success. Make sure to catch the concluding band showcase on Friday, Feb. 28, at The Complex, which will feature Drew Danburry, Mideau, The Hollering Pines, Polytype and The Circulars.
Photography by Dom Darling