On Friday, I participated as a judge in the WBNY 91.3 FM “Battle of the Bands” at Buffalo Iron Works.
It was a hoot. But I was torn about the whole thing, to be honest. I’m not a huge fan of “battles” when it comes to bands – a band’s only real battle should be an interior one, part of an ongoing struggle to be the best version of itself it possibly can. Pitting bands against each other applies a sports mentality to music, and while sometimes that can be effective within the ranks of the group itself – treating a band as a team, “passing the ball” when it’s necessary, working together toward the common good and not merely for personal glory, and so forth – more often than not, it’s a misapplication of mind-set.
While there are certain objective criteria that can be applied to the construction and performance of music, our experience of it as listeners is a wholly subjective one.
So when Jason Pitcher of Afterbirth Tycoon glared into the lights above the Iron Works’ stage toward the balcony, where I sat with fellow judges Marty Boratin (talent booker for Mohawk Place) and Cory Perla (music scribe for alt-weekly the Public) and half-jokingly growled, “Hey judges, who are you to judge us?,” I had to laugh.
Indeed – who are we to judge you?
I accepted the invitation to participate mostly because of WBNY’s involvement. Even before I moved to Buffalo in 1990, when I would visit the city on day-trips from SUNY Fredonia State, the SUNY Buffalo State student-run station represented the independent spirit in mostly underground music, and seemed to be a station that truly spoke for the music community in Buffalo. The station has been at it since 1982, and all along, a strong focus on local independent music has been a major component of the WBNY modus operandi.
“The Local Show” – still heard from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursdays – offered area artists an opportunity to be heard, whether through their recordings, in-studio interviews, or live-on-air performances. College Radio ended up having a major effect on the broader music world of the later ’80s and ’90s, providing a birthplace for alternative music, and embracing a spirit of eclecticism – they’d play pretty much anything. When I first heard WBNY, that meant Mark Freeland and the Ramrods, as much as it meant Husker Du and the Replacements.
Friday’s “Battle of the Bands” found five radically different ensembles competing, and the very eclecticism of the lineup was very much in keeping with the ethic espoused by the station for 33 years. There was the astute funk-jazz hybrid offered by Eggs Benedict, quite likely the most virtuosic set of musicians amongst the bunch; the melodic metal of all-instrumental Lancaster High School juggernaut Dream Spectrum; the often avant garde-leaning noise-rock/punk outfit Grace of Faults; the roots garage-punk of Afterbirth Tycoon; the Alternative Buffalo 107.7 FM-friendly synth-pop of New Masons; and finally, the soulful alt-pop of Rustic Radio.
None of these bands sounded remotely alike. Their only bond was what I interpreted as a vibrant spirit of independence and an ability to write tunes that, for the most part, played to their strengths and represented a personal vision.
Along with my fellow judges, I mulled over the dilemma: how to compare and contrast bands that had virtually nothing in common, stylistically speaking, and narrow down the field to one. Personal taste would have to be kicked to the curb immediately, for we were not invited to the show in order to say something like “I prefer jazz to indie-rock, therefore Eggs Benedict should win,” and so forth. Each band would have to be judged based on its ability to combine songwriting, performance, originality and musicianship – and again, most of these criteria can be interpreted subjectively, so there would be no easy answers.
In the end, we three judges scored each band on a scale of 1 to 10, tallied up our scribblings, and let the numbers themselves do the dirty work for us. The giddy, synth-heavy dance-alt-pop outfit New Masons – a band that hails from my alma mater, Fredonia State, but that had no bearing on the ultimate tally – took the top slot. Eggs Benedict, the funk-jazz outfit formed by students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, was responsible for a set that married the influence of Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, electric Miles Davis and a touch of James Brown, and placed second in the judges’ tally.
The big takeaway from this for me is the fact that, though wildly divergent in style and presentation, all of these bands did what they did very well.
The other West
This week, I was fortunate to be turned on to something vibrant, fresh and thrilling in the form of bassist/vocalist and winner of the craziest hair ever award Nik West.
A friend shared a short YouTube clip with me via social media, with the single descriptive “Whoa!,” and as soon as I watched West in action, I understood my friend’s astonishment. West seems to have it all – serious chops, incredible funkiness, a great voice and a cool over-the-top look, as well as some strong, addictive compositions. She’s already impressed the likes of Prince, Dave Stewart and John Mayer, as well as P-Funk legend Bootsy Collins, who is clearly one of West’s biggest influences in the funk department. (You can also hear plenty of Sly & the Family Stone/Graham Central Station bassist Larry Graham in her giddy mix.)
West’s debut effort, “Just in the Nik of Time,” is out now, and if you love dizzying funk, elegant soul and delicious modern R&B, you’d be well advised to check it out. See and hear for yourself at NikWestBass.com.