As usual, while every other Utah entertainment-type writer was in Park City covering star-studded Sundance this past Sunday, I was down in the valley covering City Weekly’s star-free annual Showdown to South by Southwest Finals.
Well, not completely star-free: KUWB 30 weather wacko Mitch English was on hand to help emcee the shindig—thing is, no one’s sure who actually invited him. And I did get to hang on TV with Fox 13’s Allie MacKay last week promoting this battle o’ the bands. There was a definite spark, but she hasn’t called.
The Showdown rundown, once again: For the SXSW preliminaries, a whole mess of Utah bands/artists (55 this time around) competed against each other in 30-minute sets at 10 clubs in Salt Lake City. A panel of judges (no City Weekly employees, so quit asking) at each venue scored these bands/artists on originality, professionalism, musicianship, stage presence and songwriting: one to 10 points in each category per judge; total of 50 possible from each judge.
The two bands/artists scoring the highest moved onto last Wednesday’s semifinals (a new feature this year) at four clubs, then moved ahead to Sunday’s final showdown at the Zephyr Club. There, a panel of five judges culled from the prelims and semifinals (again, no City Weekly employees—quit asking) ranked the finalists in those very same five categories all over again.
The highest-scoring band/artist at the finals wins expenses-paid entry into the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference held in Austin, Texas, March 14-18, where they can perform for and confab with those important music-industry types who never seem to frequent Salt Lake City. How did the eight bands in the biggest SXSW Showdown to date fare? Went something like this:
The Common Ground: What this quintet lacked in originality (think Matchbox Twenty, Creed or any other post-grunge radio band), they more than made up for in solid delivery. Big vocal harmonies—something too many bands lack—and tunefully sincere hooks rose above the inevitable Hootie comparisons, but no one at my table could agree on whether the lead singer looked more like Ben Affleck, Ricky Martin or Vanilla Ice. Yes, we started drinking early. Random judge comments: “Tight band, sharp sound.” “Excellent vocals and harmonies.” “A little too common; decent songwriting, but nothing to distinguish them.” Total judges’ score (out of a possible 250): 191.
The Andy Lynner Band: With a full musical complement of keyboards, saxophone and female backing vocals at his disposal, singer-guitarist Andy Lynner ripped into a spirited set reminiscent of long-lost heart-on-sleeve rockers like the Del Fuegos and the Broken Homes, with strikes of Springsteen lightning in the R&B drama. Lynner plays a hot Strat and sings with wounded grit, but things really took off whenever his comely co-vocalist stepped up. Not to bandy the “M” word about, but Meatloaf always knew the value of stage chemistry with his lady, as did Bruce. Random judge comments: “Soulful, funky sound.” “A great passion for music.” “Became more intriguing when the female singer joined in; would recommend a larger role for her.” Total judges’ score: 189.
The Zach Parrish Blues Band: In a snappy white ensemble topped with a fuzzy gray hat, guitar man Zach Parrish exacted Cajun blues vengeance for his undue (in his mind, anyway) loss at last year’s North by Northwest Showdown by throwing down with love-it-or-bite-it showmanship and abandon. (Not to spoil the “surprise ending” or anything, but Mr. Parrish handily won Sunday’s proceedings.) Between his searing slide-guitar lines and thick Gibson licks, the mustachioed one sang and danced like a Crumb cartoon character while hitting on blues from the Big Easy, Delta, Chicago and all over the musical map. It wasn’t hard to see why he made the cut this time ’round. Random judge comments: “Great stage presence—looking snazzy in the white suit.” “Classic blues band.” “Zach is a real entertainer from the word go.” Total judges’ score: 205.
Stacey Board: In a snappy green ensemble topped with a fuzzy black hat that she tossed three chords in—the hat, not the ensemble—blond folkie Stacey Board grabbed her place as the evening’s only leading woman with girl-power gusto. Songs from her two solo acoustic CDs and newer material were fleshed-out and rocked-up by her guitar-bass-drums band which, with a mere six gigs together, is greener than the aforementioned outfit, but you’d never know it from the seamless segues and powerful crescendos they turned out like a seasoned unit. Joined with Board’s keen song-crafting and fiery pipes, it was a nearly unbeatable combo. Random judge comments: “One hell of a tremendous voice.” “A difficult sound to categorize, which is a good thing.” “One of the most talented and beautiful women to grace the field.” Total judges’ score: 197.
The 13th Avenue Band: I’ve been admonished by the boss to “say nice things,” but not because local bands have proven to be ridiculously thin-skinned crybabies when criticized in even the smallest and best-humored ways. That said, here were the good points of the 13th Avenue Band’s set: The singer played a mean harmonica, the band had that bouncy Dave Matthews yuppie-jam down cold, and they’ll work in this town for years to come, critics be damned. Now, give the backup singer something to do besides stand there and look good. Random judge comments: “Unique sound, great percussion.” “Very talented frontman.” “The girl singer looks pretty bored—is she?” Total judges’ score: 185.
Jonni Lightfoot: The most frightening display of instrumental rock virtuosity the Zephyr Club has seen in a week—remember, fusion masters Steve Morse and the Dixie Dregs were there exactly seven days prior. Fleet-fingered bassist Jonni Lightfoot brought the hella-electric noise Sunday in the form of shred-o-matic lead guitar, rhythm bass (!) and prog-rock drums to back his dazzling bottom-end techniques. Fans of Morse, the Dregs, Joe Satriani et al (face it, mostly musicians) were in hog heaven, but regular folks smelled musical masturbation, even though Lightfoot and crew kept things as melodic as humanly possible sans vocals. Random judge comments: “Extreme originality, outstanding stage presence.” “Technically, the music is close to perfect.” “I don’t know if you can sing, and I don’t care.” Total judges’ score: 193.
Thunderfist: The logical rock & roll successors to SXSW Showdown 2000 winners Doublewide racked up the night’s lowest score in 2001? Color me disappointed. As has been said before, real rock & roll isn’t about polite volumes you can chat over, political correctness or parent-pleasing polish. It’s about stupid music played loudly by smart people who know better, among many other things. You won’t find a more intelligent and eloquent local frontman than Thunderfist’s Jeremy Cardenas, who took the stage in a devil costume and brandished a “Keep Music Evil” placard attached to a pitchfork. The band was decked out in LDS missionary gear throughout a (literally) fire-breathing punk set that was equal parts Black Flag and Orgazmo. Genius. Random judge comments: “Definitely the most entertaining band of the night.” “A trip—I laughed and laughed.” “SO LOUD!” Total judges’ score: 170.
Hoo Ray Who?: Somehow pegged by ill-informed conspiracy theorists as a covert Denver band, the final band of the night known as Hoo Ray Who? actually hails from Layton, which isn’t nearly as bad. Following in the two-toned footsteps of past SXSW ska contenders Insatiable and Sturgeon General, HRW’s amped-up energy took a slightly different twist through pared-down horns (just sax and trumpet) low-end funk and rapid-fire hip-hop lyric spitting, with a little reggae and swing thrown in for good measure. But, as always with SXSW, the ska bands just can’t catch a break. Random judge comments: “Horns are sharp and precise, really make the band.” “Huge energy, great rap combinations.” “Would like to have seen more originality.” Total judges’ score: 190.