This week’s top selling CD is Now That’s What I Call Music! 7, a lazy collection of annoying singles from the likes of Aerosmith, Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez. Anyone could make this record at home by simply falling asleep with the radio tuned to a “hits” station and the record button pressed on the tape recorder. The fact that people vote with their dollars for this amazingly unnecessary compilation (or for any of this summer’s idiotic blockbuster movies) provides proof that when it comes to art, popularity is a poor indicator of quality. However, one local institution continues to suffer with suffrage, allowing mob rule to dictate what bands are deemed worthy instead of, say, hiring a pseudo-celebrity panel of disc jockeys and meteorologists to dispense number ratings. On an international scale, this might result in Backstreet Boys dethroning Radiohead as rock’s best band, an inscrutable sign of civilization’s impending doom. But in Kansas City, it just means that local bands involved in America’s Pub’s Battle of the Bands must struggle to pack the place with partisans, campaigning like so many light-rail supporters.
For some groups, it’s an uphill climb. Pistolwhip‘s members are all seventeen years old, meaning that instead of relying on their buddies to make some noise, they’ve had to rally an older crowd — parents, uncles, that guy with the tattoo who works at the 7-11 — anyone who might be interested in 25 minutes’ worth of melodic hard rock. Pistolwhip arrived at America’s Pub on Wednesday, August 8, with fifteen “older friends” in tow, according to the group’s Chad Veach. By contrast, last year’s Battle winner (and subsequent one-time Marilyn Manson opening act) Bent commands a veritable army, one that can immediately seize the front lines of a club and impose martial law on fans of opposing acts.
Pistolwhip gamely loaded its slingshot (“We jumped up and started going nuts right away,” Veach says) and maintained its intensity through an aerobic workout of build-ups and drop-offs. But the first round of competitions is a graveyard for upstarts — for example, no sixteenth seed has ever upset a No. 1 in the March Madness tournament — and Pistolwhip couldn’t bludgeon its way past the mighty Bent.
Neither did Phantom Fear, though to hear guitarist Jon Baskind tell it, the contest was close. “It was one of those magical nights,” he raves. “The vibe, the energy from the crowd, it was electric.” Phantom Fear benefited from perfect attendance, with Baskind reporting that everyone whose presence was requested showed up to cheer. The band rewarded those who turned out with a solid run-through of its well-rehearsed set, but it, too, failed to upset the incumBent. It was the kind of hard-fought skirmish that could have planted the seeds of a bitter rivalry, but Baskind instead opts for gracious, Gore-style concession. “Everyone gave it their all,” he cheerily assesses. Baskind has good reason to remain in high spirits, because Phantom Fear won its round of a recent battle in Chicago, overcoming astronomical odds in beating indigenous opponents in a crowd-response-based system. The group competes in those finals on Saturday, September 1, at Champ’s Rock Room.
The members of Moaning Lisa, who on Wednesday, August 1, competed for the berth into the finals that Shudderbug eventually claimed, don’t have another battle to look forward to, and thus weren’t as congenial. “Our show was better, our crowd response was better and our crowd size was bigger,” argues vocalist David George. “If the reason we lost is because our people got bored and left by the end of the night when they call out the names of the bands and/or because of a time-limit infraction [Moaning Lisa played for forty minutes], that’s screwed. Judge us on our talent and ability.”
While the individual problems Moaning Lisa faced might have been esoteric, George’s last sentence has served as the indignant exit cry for many unsuccessful Battle contenders during the event’s six-year history. However, America’s Pub general manager Chris Pearson offers the reminder that crowd response isn’t the only criteria on which groups are judged. Crowd response does devour the lion’s share of the available points (thirty out of fifty), but overall stage show (energy/presentation) and musical originality are each worth ten points.
Soulless, which competes against Ultrafuge, Scape Goat and Albino Fly on Wednesday, August 15, used a winning blend of these elements to nab top honors at America’s Pub’s Spring Annihilation tournament, claiming a $1,000 prize in the process. Musical originality is tough to gauge — Soulless earns the benefit of the doubt for blending grunge and metal while many of its contemporaries crossbreed rock and rap. For stage show, guitarist/vocalist Tony Torres advises, “Show excitement while you’re playing. Your music should move you as well as the crowd.” As for the all-important construction of a crowd, Torres says his group has stuck to tried-and-true methods such as maintaining a hundred-member-plus mailing list and handing out promo CDs and stickers at local venues.
Ultrafuge hasn’t engaged in any such pavement-pounding, and singer Thad Carson acknowledges that the group’s fan support has dwindled as a result. But, he explains, the quartet has had more important issues with which to deal. “It’s all over a woman and heroin problems,” he says, summarizing the inner-group turmoil that has made 2001 “the worst year of the band’s existence.” Steepening the group’s climb, Carson’s Ultra-high-energy stage presence, normally one of the group’s biggest selling points and an instant ten in the performance category, will be largely absent as well, the result of a herniated disc that makes it difficult for him to even walk. Without these handicaps, Ultrafuge, which made the Battle finals in 1999, might be the favorite for its round. With them, it’s a long shot at best.
That’s not a concern for Carson, who views this gig pragmatically. “What the hell,” he says. “We haven’t been playing that many shows lately, and it’s good practice to get in front of people.” Besides, getting to open the Freaker’s Ball (the Battle’s prize — headliners for this annual event have not yet been announced) isn’t a top priority for Ultrafuge. “I never wanted that anyway,” Carson says of becoming an arena rocker for a day. “I’m a huge fan of the whole Fugazi camp, of people doing things independently.” Finally, for someone dealing with incessant pain while awaiting back surgery, laughter can be the best medicine. “It’s a joke,” Carson says. “Some of these groups practice to a tee exact songs, time them out, and even practice exactly what they’re going to say. It becomes quite humorous to me. The whole idea of music is to be spontaneous, and I see these bands as so set in their ways.”
Whoever these well-scripted acts might be, it doesn’t seem likely that any of them will make it to the finals — perhaps in this case, practice doesn’t make perfect. Awaiting Wednesday’s winner are Thrust, a group whose followers make Chiefs fans seem like golf-clapping pansies, Shudderbug, a party-ready funk, rock and rap juggernaut, and imposing champs Bent. It’s hard to imagine any of these swaggering groups setting a stopwatch to their frequent streams of profane banter. It’s more difficult still to envision the proceedings coming to a close before some bad blood boils over among the bands’ followings, all of which will be trying to pump up their favorite acts while shouting down the opposition. And when a bunch of heavy-metal toughs engage in this sort of cheerleading, they usually wave something more menacing than pom-poms.
“They kinda ask for it,” Carson says, theorizing that the emphasis on crowd response leads to heated confrontations. “Everybody gets drunker as the night goes on, and emotion is prevalent.” The thick tension spawned by such fierce competition might scare away music fans who might otherwise like to check out an eclectic quartet of bands, but, hey, this is aggressive music, and these bands thrive in this atmosphere. If a brawl broke out, it could almost be a down-low marketing coup, like hockey fights or NASCAR crashes. Picture the T-shirt image — someone about to get brained with a bottle — and the caption: “Battle of the Bands: It Ain’t Star Search.” Once again, the people have spoken.