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Calling Grace (Matt Downing) (copy)

Calling Grace won against Edenforge in the semifinal round of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sioux City's BAND6k battle of the bands.

Provided by Matt Downing

It’s difficult not go into these BAND6k battles without some sort of expectation. In a bout between Calling Grace and Edenforge, I expected it would be a contest of production value. I thought whoever best utilized their stage props and light rigs would win. And although each group included supplementary elements into their live shows, they didn’t get in the way of what was ultimately most important in a battle of the bands: the music.

Calling Grace opened last week’s semifinal match. Previous battles showcased the Sioux City rock band’s proficiency in delivering well-rehearsed live performances, but the group often had problems finding its energy until the second or third song in its setlist. Despite some performance shortcomings, the band always seemed to have a game plan and made sure it was very well prepared for its BAND6k shows. Like before, the band kicked off its show with a dramatic intro brought to life with the help of two light towers on either side of the drum kit, as well as an intimidating voiceover sending a “warning” to the audience. Unlike before, Calling Grace began its set fully energized and never once let up.

The buzzy and melodic guitar work by Logan Lansink and Alex Newman were on point from beginning to end. Newman in particular -- who improved dramatically as a performer from the first time we saw Calling Grace play its preliminary round -- really worked his solos and dressed them up for the crowd. Meanwhile, Lansink was as consistent as ever with his rockin’ stage presence and gruff backup vocals that added this hard-edged harmony to singer Shawn Fertig’s aggressively melodic vocal performance.

Fertig was exceptional this round. Ever since I saw him perform as the lead singer-guitarist in the band Trust during Road to Vegas and Road to Vegas 2, I’ve always been enjoyed Fertig as a frontman. He has a natural charisma onstage and you can’t help but be drawn to his performance.  If there were any doubts as to whether Fertig could make the transition from the softer rock of Trust/Stop Motion Skeletons to the much more aggressive sound of Calling Grace, last week’s performance certainly proved so. Although there were some instances where his voice was masked by the guitar work, this was the best Fertig has ever looked and sounded onstage. He was beyond comfortable with his surroundings, his movements were crisp and he gave every song the same amount of care and attention as the next.

During the set, Fertig would utilize Calling Grace’s new “toys,” which came in the form of a drum head propped onto a tripod. With a mallet in one hand, he’d take turns bashing the thing, but at times he seemed scared to hit it, as if he might topple it over if he smacked it too hard. They got their use but I question how much these really added to the overall effect of the band’s show.

But it’s not like Calling Grace was going all-in on these stand-up drums. This was not the band’s secret weapon or trump card. Nor was the mid-song selfie taken by the band’s crazed drummer Jake Rains (the comedic timing of this specific moment couldn’t have been more perfect, by the way). Nor was the introduction of a new song, which spurred Fertig to get up close with the front row audience members (and then proceed to have trouble getting back onstage). Nor was the band’s outro video which brought back that eerie voiceover and asked the audience if it wanted to hear one more song. One might believe the band’s homerun moment was its closing song, a somewhat-acoustic version of Calling Grace’s song “No Superman,” but I think the band’s strongest point in the show happened just before its finale.

Calling Grace’s rendition of its original “Leading to You” was downright outstanding and fully encapsulates the band’s performance that night. The group moved and played as a cohesive unit from start to finish and was dead set on leaving an impression with both its production value and dynamic live show. Although the stage was packed with equipment and other tools, they were never the focus of the concert or distracted the crowd from Calling Grace’s powerhouse setlist. What the group was finally able to pull off was engaging its audience and keeping them hooked throughout its set. Out of the three appearances Calling Graces has made in the competition, this was its strongest by far.

Closing the night was Edenforge, a Sioux City metal band that also had a knack for filling its stage space at the BAND6k battle of the bands with little additives like extra instruments and light rigs. Past performances in the contest have highlighted the band’s confidence in entertaining audiences with a varied set, but also an inconsistency in terms of sound quality. During its preliminary round, Edenforge surprised us with a gripping energetic show with a handful of memorable moments – the one that still stands out to me is when singer-guitars Dave Reichman asked its audience to sing along to the band’s original song. Both the clean and dirty vocals were on point that opening round, as well as the shattering percussion from Blayke Hall. However, the group’s quarterfinals showing was nowhere near the standard the band set for itself previously. Coming into this semifinal round, I expected Edenforge, at the very least, would sound better. Thankfully, they did.

In addition to sounding a helluva lot better than they did against Port Nocturnal, the band made changes to its stage setup. Gone were the extra guitar player/keyboardist, those unnecessary (but cool) light towers and the bulky second drum kit. The latter had actually shifted into a bigger drum that was kept off to the side, allowing more room for Reichman to work the stage. Another added “prop” was the inclusion of two trash cans stationed on either side of Hall’s kit. I initially thought these containers served no purpose other than aesthetics. Later on into Edenforge’s set, band members used them as percussion instruments, giving the group a hint of industrial rock sound. Even better, the “drum battle” Reichman and Hall had conducted in the previous two battles -- and that sounded like the bass/drum line from “I Want Candy” -- was completely omitted from the band’s semifinal bout.

After a brief intro, Edenforge kicked off its set in strong form, delivering a barrage of grinding guitars and pumping percussion, coupled with Reichman’s screaming vocals. There was no slow or dramatic build up. Edenforge cut the bullsh** and got down to business. While Hall was going to town on the drums, bassist Elijah Bryce was going nuts on stage left. According to the band’s Facebook page, Edenforge is currently looking for a bassist. As far as fill-ins go, Bryce is a great choice. He was a standout performer during Edenforge’s quarterfinal round battle, and he was just as entertaining to watch this time around. Bryce has nearly limitless energy and has no real “off” button. He was at his best when the band was on its last song. After all that hard playing and moving around, Bryce still found it in him to squeeze out a frenetic performance.

Guitarist Bryan Thompson, again, showcased how he is easily one of the best guitarists in the entire competition. He’s technical in his play and doesn’t dress it up as much as his contemporaries, but the dude can really play the hell out of his instrument. He’d often team up with Reichman during a few riffs to great effect. Reichman in particular made some serious upgrades in his performance. Although he still has a tendency to freeze up and sing with these rigid movements, the frontman made an effort to entertain and connect with the crowd. His vocals were far better than before and he was more than willing to take a step outside of his comfort zone – even if he still kept one foot firmly planted inside that imaginary space.

Probably the band’s most prominent moment during last week’s battle was its “Chinese fire drill” moment. After previously stating that the band just wanted to have fun this round, the guys in Edenforge suddenly switched instruments. Bryce was on keys while Thompson situated himself behind the kit; Reichman and Hall were standing behind the garbage cans. For the next few minutes, all four members would continuously change positions to play a medley of video game and movie themes that every ‘90s kid could appreciate. Edenforge played metal versions of the “Terminator 2” score and “Mortal Kombat,” “Super Mario Bros.” and “Tetris” theme songs. If “fun” is what the band was going for, Edenforge did certainly accomplished that goal.

While Edenforge displayed a much cleaner set with fun moments thrown in the middle, it was Calling Grace that walked home the winner of last week’s BAND6k semifinal battle. Judges used the term “well-oiled machine,” and I think that’s a relatively fitting title for the band that played its best show in the competition thus far. And now all that hard work has paid off; Calling Grace will play the championship round of the BAND6k battle of the bands against Thick Mistress or Artificial Stars May 26 at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sioux City.

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