Michael John Dunaway Lifestream

October 8, 2008

My Night as Simon Cowell (for Paste)

Filed under: Entertainment,Magazine articles by MJD,Paste articles by MJD,Uncategorized — michaeljohndunaway @ 1:45 am
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Unabridged version of an article I wrote for Paste…link to published version here.

My Night as Simon Cowell
Michael Dunaway

If there’s one thing I can report to you from the trenches of Unsignedbandville, population 100 gazillion, it’s that optimism reigns supreme.

Last week I served on a panel of judges at the Southeast Regional Finals of Disc Makers’ Independent Music World Series (http://www.discmakers.com/imws/), and what struck me the most about the evening was the widespread enthusiasm and fervent hucksterism that swept much of the room. Even before the competition began, as my fellow judge (David “Hi Level” Claassen, BMI hotshot and podcaster extraordinaire and Randy to my Simon) and I were doing our best to cost our hosts as much money at the open bar as possible, we were accosted by an army of “agents” in suits (always the suits) with CD’s, photos, and even full blown press releases (with widely varying degrees of professionality), touting the acts they were supporting. Mind you, these people didn’t even know who we were yet, only that we had been chosen to judge a regional competition that is, in the grand scheme of things, relatively minor. Apparently, that was enough to elevate us in their eyes to the status of cigar-chomping, three-martini-lunch-taking career-makers of the bigtime music scene. Although maybe the copious quantities of top shelf tequila we put away gave them some idea of the lunch thing.

The other interesting characteristic of these musical Sam-I-Ams, besides their attire, enthusiasm, and optimism, was their race. All African-American, every last one of them. If any of the white bands had management present, they didn’t make themselves known to us. It’s an interesting dichotomy – in the white community, cool means hanging back and acting like you don’t care who listens to you. In the black community, cool means being confident enough to step up and tell someone they’re not going to hear a better act all night. Say what you will about the braggadocio in much of hip-hop and its unhealthy emphasis on bling (I know I have, in both cases), but here’s one area where the two have forged a winning attitude in the community. There was something almost 1950’s-wholesome about the whole pre-competition fleshpress (much to the chagrin of the single-and-on-the-prowl David, who I think was hoping for a bit more of a groupie scene – “Surely there must be more talent than this,” he groaned, and I don’t think he was referring to the bands).

As for the bands themselves, I have to say, not bad (in most cases). Better than I expected, in fact. Here’s a breakdown of my reactions to the six acts, in the order we saw them, along with an update after hearing each act’s music several days later:

Act 1: The Train Wrecks

The resurgence of Southern attitude-rock reaches the grassroots as well, as every Skynyrd fan with a guitar dreams of hitting it big as the next Drive-By Truckers. The Train Wrecks don’t fit the mold exactly – they’re a lot more Hank than Ronnie in places, with some Jeff Tweedy and Kevn Kinney mixed in as well – but they’re obviously trying to ride the Truckers’ impressive coattails, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. If you walked into a Macon bar on a Friday night and these guys were playing a set, you wouldn’t be disappointed. You might even remember them fondly.

But I don’t think I’ll be buying their CD. For one thing, although I’m all for theatrics, the staged persona of the lead singer was a bit much. First song, hat and sunglasses. Second song, sunglasses only. Third song, no sunglasses. Dude, on behalf of your fellow brothers in the lead singers fraternity, I’m begging you to stop playing into the stereotype. Just pick a look and sing the damn songs. And second, the music itself seemed a bit flat, a bit lifeless, a bit derivative. I don’t fault the singer, who despite the previous objection was actually a reasonably charismatic guy and had a good voice, or the band itself, which seemed tight enough. I blame the songs, and the arrangements. Just not very exciting, and that kind of music is pretty energized to begin with. One song especially, a tired anti-war screed, went on for days before it mercifully ended.

I’m hearing myself being harsher with The Train Wrecks than I meant to be. They were perfectly fine, a fun party band to spend a few songs with. I just didn’t hear anything extraordinary there. By all means, go see them if they’re coming to your town. Just hope for a couple of fun hours, not a transcendent experience.

Update – well, shiver me timbers, I’m now listening to some of the songs on their MySpace page, and I do like them more than I thought. Tighter, more thoughtful. Plus they list Johnny Cash AND The Carter Family as influences, so I have a soft spot for them. Check them out, for sure. I know I’ll be giving them another chance.

Act Two: Zaki

Sometimes the medium is the message. Sometimes it’s just not the right room for you. And sometimes a donut without a hole is a danish. But I digress.

Zaki is an African-American crooner, though more in the vein of D’Angelo than John Legend. He seems to have a good bit of talent, but he was hampered this night by two major flaws. First, the sound was turned far, far too low for his music. I’m not blaming the sound guy on hand; it could be that he had orders to keep each band at about the same level, or he could have gotten bad instructions from Zaki itself. But as anyone who’s listened to a neo-soul album knows, this music needs to be LOUD to accomplish its effect. At its room-dominating best, a song by Maxwell, Jill Scott, or Erykah Badu can stop you in your tracks, transport you in a way no other genre can. Turned down low, it sounds like elevator music. And it’s hard to capture a crowd composed largely of your competitors’ fans with something that sounds like elevator music.

The second flaw, and not at all Zaki’s fault, is that he came without any backup band at all (he’s “ballin on a budget,” as he winningly told us). He sang to prerecorded tracks. Unless you’ve got a voice just this side of Whitney, you just aren’t going to win a band competition that way. It robs the music of its immediacy, of its unignorableness (and yes, I just made up that word).

Still, Zaki not only has a very good voice, he has very funky instincts (a trait too often missing in soul singers with good voices). He’s certainly got a shot at a career. If I were his agent, the first thing I’d do is get a demo in the hands of the manager of every up-and-coming rapper in Atlanta (well, maybe we could cull the list a bit, living as we are in the mecca of up-and-coming rappers). The line is, “Look, you ain’t Dre, your act ain’t Snoop, and Nate Dogg ain’t singin’ the hook on your single. But Zaki will bring the house down singin’ your hook.” I’m sure that’s not the career that Zaki has in mind, and maybe it would lead to bigger things, but that seems like the logical place to start.

Update – Zaki’s website links to his music don’t work, but dig through to find the link to his Myspace page, and you’ll hear for yourself. He sounds a good bit better on record, where he doesn’t have to strain to be heard.

Act 3: Akeem Brodie AKA 757

Even the judges that voted for other bands can’t deny that for pure showmanship, this was easily the best act of the night. They really took it to another level. Here’s the scene: as the (figurative) curtain rises, an onstage DJ lays down a killer Dirty South beat, and a white-shirted rapper begins rapping/shouting the mantra “You’ rockin’ with the best,” over and over. After a couple of preliminary verses, growling exhortations and sounding like a young DJ Quik, he welcomes to the stage the main event, Akeem Brodie. Akeem rushes in, dressed in a quasi-military uniform and mirrored shades, and proceeds to tear the place up. Jumping around, working the crowd, punctuating his lyrics with jagged thrusts of his finger, he has a flow reminiscent of Darrell Mac of Run-DMC. I mean, the crowd is going crazy, even the fans of most of the other bands. The three are soon joined onstage by Steph B, the slinky, sultry female member of the crew. We don’t get to hear a lot from her, but what she does spit is good, and the scenery makes up for the rest.

It wasn’t a flawless set; some of the songs were more arresting than others. But all were good, and a few were very, very, very good. The juxtaposition of the Dirty South beats of the DJ with Brodie’s unexpectedly old-school delivery is striking, and thrilling. If he achieves even a bit of regional popularity and reminds some younger fans of the roots of MCing, he will have accomplished a great thing as those fans dig through record bins looking for past masters like Run-DMC, Afrika Bambaataa, and KRS-One (he cites more recent influences, but there’s no doubt that Public Enemy, Tupac, Biggie, and Nas proceeded directly from those giants, and I suspect Brodie knows that too).

Listen to me — go see 757. I mean, if you have to drive a couple of hours on a school night with an exam the next day, go see them. Have someone else drive, and you study in the car. These guys are that good. All my friends are tired of me recommending hip-hop albums to them, and I was really, really hoping the best act of the night wouldn’t be a hip-hop act for that reason. And, anyway, live hip-hop is so difficult to pull off (a subject for another article). But 757 is worth it.

Update – the music on the MySpace page is pretty representative, though it doesn’t really capture the energy of the live show. Go listen, but just know that the live show will be better, by a magnitude of ten.

Act Four: Act of Congress

Now the evening was really hitting its stride. Act of Congress is an Americana band out of Birmingham, with echoes of Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek, and more conventional contemporary country bands. But they also have some influences from the softer Americana side of the indie rock scene (see Sufjan Stevens or Damien Jurado, but with a poppier edge), as evidenced by their set opener, a terrific bluegrass-y cover of “Such Great Heights” (a song that already has two very different and equally outstanding versions).

Act of Congress was certainly the most professional band to hit the stage that night, and their musicianship was second to none. These guys could flat out play. The vocals blended well, the solos (mandolin, fiddle, guitar) were creative and tight and not overly drawn-out, and the songwriting was crisp. To my mind their stage show wasn’t quite the equal of 757’s, but David and I were texting each other on the way home about how impressive their CD was. So maybe it was another issue with the tenor of the room. Or maybe the tequila was starting to wear off.

Update: Act of Congress is the band whose CD I would most recommend buying. There are several excellent songs on their Myspace that will give you a sense of their sound. And definitely go see them on tour; I suspect they’d especially profit from a venue that’s more of a “listening room” a la Eddie’s Attic or, on the large side, Variety Playhouse.

Act Five: Good Guys

In the immortal words of Randy Jackson, “I don’t know, it was kinda pitchy for me, dawg.”

And here’s where it all went wrong. Okay, look, I really like heavy music. And I’m especially inclined to give lots of leeway to any band from my beloved home-city-from-afar, New Orleans. And I’m especially disinclined to slam a band in this forum.

But wow, these guys were bad. I mean, bad. I mean, I’m searching to find something good to say about them. Maybe they love their mothers (actually to look at them you’d guess maybe they don’t)? Okay, here’s the best I can do – if you were really, really drunk at a fraternity party at around 2AM and these guys hit the stage, it might be kind of cool. Or, I guess, if you’re a huge Ween fan, as David points out.

But otherwise they were a total loss for me. They describe their music as Lounge/Core, but that description doesn’t really capture the sound they had on stage. It was something/core for sure, but I’d say more emo/core than anything else. Mostly it was guys in matching black shirts and ties (you’d better be a pretty great band to pull that off), stumbling around the stage playing loud, pointless music and striking poses with a ridiculous bravado completely out of proportion to the talent they were displaying.

I’m not quite sure how this band was selected as a finalist – I can only think that someone decided a heavy band needed to be in the group, and that someone didn’t know or care a lot about the genre. I could guarantee that there were half a dozen bands within five miles of the venue playing this kind of music that very night that would have been better. Two rather unkind stories will give you an idea of what I mean. First, the Latina judge behind me tapped me on the shoulder at one point and said, “I’m not really into this kind of music, but I don’t want to give them a low score if they’re actually good.” Three judges simultaneously reassured her that her instincts were correct. And second, it was this band that prompted a fellow judge to suggest I include MySpace links in this article. “People will have a new respect for you,” he said, “Holy #&$^, you actually sat through that?”

Update: Listening to the music on their Myspace, unfortunately, doesn’t change my mind about anything I wrote above. Look, I may be wrong about these guys; I may just be too old or straight to enjoy the emo/goth theatrics and minor power chords. You may listen to them and think they’re the greatest thing since Siouxsie, and if so, by all means buy the CD and go see them. Really. And if you do, tell them I’m sorry about this review, and it’s nothing personal.

Act Six: Big John AKA The Giant

He wasn’t the most talented, he wasn’t the best songwriter or showman, he wasn’t the most professional, but darned if this guy didn’t give the two top-flight acts a run for the money for the title of most entertaining. David and I had been watching a very large guy (I’d guess 6’6”, 330) walking around the crowd all night wearing a shirt that read, in large letters, “The Giant.” And Giant he was when he came on stage. After a few intro bars of his first song, he stripped down to a wifebeater to reveal his huge tattooed arms, so better to illustrate his trademark song “We Tatted Up.” Fun stuff.

Big John also had the best advance team of any of the bands that played. Six or seven people were screaming the entire time he was on the stage, revving up the crowd. Two of them (one on each side) raised up a different poster (!) for each song. As a not-to-be-named member of an earlier band (our secret, shorty) pointed out, though, those few inside people John had planted were really the only crowd members going crazy. A few toe taps and head bobs here and there, but the widespread electricity present in, say, the 757 set just wasn’t there.

Still, I’ll say this for Big John – he can write a hook, and he’s got an interesting voice and a unique persona. He’s not a particularly sophisticated songwriter, but anyone who’s listened to an urban station recently knows that’s no handicap to a career. In fact, with songs like “We Tatted Up” and “That’s My Song,” I actually would rate him as the most likely of these six to have at least a regional radio hit. David and I have found ourselves texting each other quotes from his songs. That can’t be all bad, right?

Update – Again, the Myspace songs confirm my initial impression. Certainly worth seeing if he’s in town and you like hip hop, and if you like Dirty South hiphop with a hard edge, it’s worth checking out the CD.

And then it was over. Act of Congress took home the big prize for the night, and although my vote went to 757, I really couldn’t begrudge them the top spot. They’re a very talented group of performers, with impeccable musicianship and solid songwriting. I expect you’ll be hearing more from them. But also keep your eye out for Big John, and especially – especially — for 757.

And one more piece of advice – if you’re ever invited to judge one of these competitions, don’t miss it, especially if you can judge with a friend. Heck, you should even go to this one next year as an observer. It’s a ton of fun, and a completely different experience from a normal night out to hear bands. Thanks to David Claassen of BMI, and thanks especially to Jessica Darrican of Disc Makers, whose hospitality never wavered, even as the pizza boxes and Patron bottles piled higher and higher. See you next year!

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2 Comments »

  1. Dude this was fun. I would do it again. Great article.

    Comment by D CLAWZ — October 8, 2008 @ 12:48 pm | Reply

  2. HAD A GREAT NIGHT!!! THANKS FOR THE KIND REVIEW…

    Comment by BIG JOHN A.K.A "THE GIANT" — October 14, 2008 @ 9:50 am | Reply


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