So...my friend Edwin Decker sent me a message asking if I might fill in for him as a judge for the Viejas Casino Country Band Contest. I have never judged anything before and I'm always game to a new experience, so I told him in no uncertain terms "Hell Yes!".
Now here begins the quandary. I don't wanna be a poison-pen critic who slices up their artists for the mere pleasure and power to do so, at the same time I don't wanna be a milk-toast writer who just white washes everything until it's so bland you can't sink your teeth into anything. To further things, I am an artist. I'm on stage all the time. Stuff goes wrong, even badly wrong. I've walked in these band's shoes a thousand times over. I know. I empathize. That being said, I can criticize because I've been doing this thing for 20 years and I've seen it all. So here goes, the evening progressed as follows:
I met my Judges Cathryn and Richard at the Judges table. I've known Cathryn in the San Diego music scene for quite a few years, but Richard I just met. An old pro like myself, I instantly liked him. The judges table itself is smack-dab in the middle of the room, on a riser 3 feet high with spot lights highlighting every move and expression we make and microphones, for our commentary after each band plays a 30 minute set. Simon Cowell immediately comes to mind. Ugh...the man everyone loves to hate. Well...I ain't no friggin' Simon Cowell. I'm not a pure critic. I am an artist, but please don't let me sound like Paula Abdul! *laughing* We searched around for pens and the first band is announced "Ward James and the Ramblers".
Ward comes up to the mike a proceeds to tell everyone that this band has only been together for four days. He had a "disagreement" with his former band. Okay Ward. We now know. They start playing and it's immediately obvious they haven't been a band long. Very jittery beginnings and endings. The Wramblers are young. A lot younger than Ward. It turns out they were all 18 except Ward. I liked the bass player, he had good energy and a solid bass player. The guitarist was good too, he just needs to season and age and he could be a great guitarist. All of them do. They could be a really good band in time. Just not tonight. Ward has a good voice, especially when he went to the Johnny Cash baritone. He traded solos with his guitarist, which was not a good idea. He seemed to have his mind on other things and was very sporadic and unmusical. Leave the solos to the lead guitarist and sing your butt off and get some crowd rapport going Ward. It will serve you well. The crowd was excited. Mainly because they brought out a bunch of fans, a good idea. There's power in that, and they needed all the support they could get. When it came to myself commentating on their performance I could've easily drew blood with all the criticisms, but why? They knew everything already. They were on stage. They knew how it was supposed to be. So I just accented the positives and told them it takes moxy for a young/four-day band to get up on stage and try to win a contest.
Next up is Justin Newman.
It's just Justin. No band. Wasn't this a "band" contest? This can either bode well for him or not. Solo acts can be a double-edged sword. Truly powerful or disastrous. Well...it was disaster.
Justin decided to use a loop machine and a heavy metal guitar pedal for his acoustic guitar. Always a bad idea. Use an electric guitar for electric guitar sounds. Use an acoustic for acoustic ones. Hello?! Technology isn't that wondrous yet! I couldn't hear his voice because of the metal acoustic-guitar was too loud. He didn't have the guitar chops for that type of guitar sound either, and is this supposed to "Country" music? I know it's good to push the envelope, but it's just not appropriate in this genre. Even the Blues Brothers had to adjust so they wouldn't get anymore glass bottles thrown at them! The next song...more fiasco. This time he changed the song he was gonna play and forgot about the different tuning he needed to do it. So rather than stop and tune, he proceeded to continue completely out of tune and tried to fix it mid-song. Bad idea Justin. Just stop...say "I'm tuning 'cause I care" and start the song over. Better a false start than four minutes of nausea inducing out-of-tuneness. Is that a word? Nope. *smile* Now hears the kicker, when he turned off all his loop and metal effects and just sang "Wicked Game" on his acoustic, he kicked ass. If he would'a just let himself be himself with out all the wiz-band-doo-dads, he might've won this contest. His voice was that good. But no. He didn't. He lost me, lost me, had me, and then lost me again with his final fiasco of a White Stripes tune with the metal guitar. White Stripes? In a country show? With a metal guitar? Really? Okay...
City Limits hit the stage. Slowly. Really slowly. "They don't tour" is what I thought to myself. They took forever setting up. Weekend warriors with some corporate party experience under their belt. I was a bit wary when I saw the singer/guitarist plug in his glowing LED electric guitar. Thankfully there wasn't a fiasco, fireworks, Pantera solos or such. They were a very competent band. The sound guy should've been shot, but it wasn't the band's fault. The sound guy thought it would be a good idea to have the kick drum be the loudest thing in the room and that it should sound like it should be on a Motley Crue album. Yes...sound guy...I'm talking to you! This is a Country band show and its the snare/rim shot you should here prominently, not the kick for rock/house music. Anyway...I digress. This is the thing. You know when you tell someone "Yea...that guy is a really nice guy." ? It isn't so much of a complement as an insult. This band was a nice band. Granted, no fiascos, but they're are walking the fine line of mediocrity. Nice. A nice band. I'm just saying...put some more life into your show guys. Take some chances. Have some fun, not just hitting all the right notes and the right time. There is more to music and performance. The audience liked them, many danced. Of course the audience would like them. They are a good band.
Oh...that reminds me...what's up with not being Southern and singing with a Southern accent? I'm from Memphis. The South. I've lived out here for a long time. Even I don't have a accent anymore. Why is it that this really thick drawl comes out when the song starts? The thing about country music is that it needs to be sincere. Sincerity is what makes a good country song. When I hear someone impersonate a Southern accent, all of the sincerity goes out the window. You use your own voice that you were born with and sing the truth...and the people will listen.
Lastly...Tequila Rose comes out for their set and the final band of the night. They are tight and relaxed. The singer Rachael is a good singer, not amazing, but she used her sass and woman power to her advantage. If you got it, use it I say. No southern accent and doesn't sing with one. More honest I think. The harmonica player is good too. They played "A Thing Called Love" which was the best song of the night. Good blues harmonica and electric slide. Being from Memphis...this helped win me over. Their bass player was rollin' and ramblin', laying down the groove solid and free. Free...yea...this band was actually having fun on stage. This is what's its about! Fun. The audience participation was less than the previous band. Perhaps they didn't really bring many people? But in the end the crowd yelled for them the loudest, and I agreed with them.
Side note - Ed. Ed you brotha-from-a-different-motha! Thank you for the Patrone shot that Colleen (I believe that was here name) gave me last night. Colleen, if that is your name...you're a too-cool-for-school-trouble-maker-lady and I thank you for the welcome you gave me for my foray into the land of Simon-Al-Paula-Freak-Show.
I'm gonna go back to sleep now....