By the second round of the competition, bands are expected to add new elements to their live performances while also remaining consistent in their sound and delivery. It’s an arduous and sometimes contradicting task, but the groups that can adhere to those unspoken rules often have a slight advantage in the battle.
To better understand this, let’s take a look at last week’s competitors: Thick Mistress and The Wood Notes. What do we know about these two bands?
We know that Thick Mistress tends to play hard and loud, and we know the individual performances are kinetic and raw. As far as the sound, it is hard rock through and through, with soulful and bluesy undertones. I tell ya, there’s something oddly smoky about Thick Mistress’ sound, as if the music itself is singed along the edges, burned through from playing too close to the fire.
Likewise, we know The Wood Notes enjoys playing around with its music, allowing its members ample time to jam or amplify instrumental sequences. We know the band’s lead singer and guitarist Vince Swaney is the highlight of the show with his frantic playstyle that is prone to snowballing out of control. We know the band’s sound is funky, atmospheric and structured around these slow burner buildups followed by bursting payoffs.
Knowing all that, I was anxious to see if Thick Mistress and The Wood Notes could maintain the expectations beset upon them while also showing off something new to dazzle the audience and judges. Turns out, only one band was able to do that.
Thick Mistress set the mood for its opening set with another video intro -- this one featured an interview with Lemmy of Motörhead speaking about the essential ingredients of being in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Paired with the group’s previous video intro in which Dave Grohl stressed the importance of playing live shows, it’s become clear Thick Mistress has formed an ideology and is essentially assuring us that it will, in fact, deliver its promises and live up to its own credo. And from the looks of it, the band had no problem in fulfilling its pledge.
The Sioux City band was full of energy and could barely contain itself on the Anthem stage. Everyone was moving to the music. Much like before, guitarist Tucker Long and bassist Eric Meek were stationed on one side of the stage and having a blast. The two frequently played to each other and genuinely looked like they were having the time of their life playing their instruments. I liken their onstage chemistry to that of their fellow competitor Artificial Stars, a band that also takes great pleasure in being onstage and entertaining the audience as well as themselves.
On the other side of the stage was guitarist John Velasquez, who provided Thick Mistress with robust, chugging riffs and occasional backup vocals. Velasquez dressed up his performance with lots of wild movement and was given many chances to hog the spotlight with kickass solos. On par with Velasquez’s stellar play was drummer Adam Crawford, who continuously impresses me with his hard percussion style and physical performance. Someone should check if there’s a mirror behind that drum kit because I swear Crawford must play to his facial expressions. Or perhaps he’s just that good a musician that he knows how to match Thick Mistress’ gruff sound. That seems more realistic.
What’s most enjoyable about Thick Mistress is that the band has character, and the person who probably contributes the most to that character is singer Steve Carlson. In between songs, Carlson would naturally work the room and make a connection with the audience. His likable personality pulls you into the band’s next song. Once Carlson makes that transition from “host” to singer, it becomes a guessing game as to how he will approach this song. Will we get the soul singer or the rough rocker? Will it be an aggressive Carlson with screams and dirty vocals or are we getting the bluesman? I don’t quite understand how this sort of range works for Thick Mistress, but it does. And I think it’s because of Carlson’s range and character that the band’s finale worked as well as it did.
Near the end of the band’s show, the members of Thick Mistress stripped down its setup into something more accustomed to an episode of “MTV Unplugged.” Instead of the loud and rugged band we saw earlier, we were introduced to something a tad more intimate and vulnerable. The lights dimmed, and a recorded voice read lines of poetry behind a piano track. A video began to play and so did the band. This was to be a memorial. Pictures of loved ones appeared on the flat screens inside Anthem. Names hovered above the images: Jon Johnson, Brian McCormick, Aaron Stroh, Thomas D. Smets, Jacqueline Velasquez, William Sampson Jr., Cyle Kohlman, Joellen Long and Leo.
It was a very poignant moment in the show and was completely unexpected. This was certainly something different than what Thick Mistress had done in the past. It was a respectable end to the show. However, if this was the way the band wanted to end, it would have been more interesting to see another song or two in this style. Go all the way with it.
The Wood Notes played last. Going into the battle, I was eager to see the Omaha indie jam band show us what else it could do; or at least build upon what it displayed at the last battle. Sadly, we didn’t see anything new about The Wood Notes, and most of what made the band enjoyable during the preliminary didn’t show up until the end of set.
The band had a slow start. My eyes were fixated on Swaney, who was a joy to watch during the first round. In a previous recap I described his frenzied play was like watching “a drugged up hyena driving full speed down the highway in an old Plymouth Fury with the top down and the headlights turned off.” All I kept asking myself throughout the first half of last week’s set was, “Where’s the hyena I remember?”
Apart from overly fidgeting with his pedalboard, Swaney was relatively subdued in his guitar play. The moments in which the guitarist flourished and was roused to give any kind of performance were mostly near the end of the show. When Swaney was energized and given time to jam alongside his bandmates is when The Wood Notes was at its best. Bassist Mike Laizure was very active in his play and provided unique backing vocals. When Laizure steps to the mic, he’s more than a couple feet away when he shouts or sings, giving this very subtle and ethereal vocal track to The Wood Notes eclectic setlist. Drummer Mark Winkelbauer pairs well with his bandmates. His play really stood out when songs hit these explosive swells and high points.
By the time The Wood Notes really started to get interesting with its strong instrumentals, the band’s set had ended. To me, Swaney was just getting started by the end. The delay in energy killed any interest I had built up. The band did end well though. Compared to its first showing, The Wood Notes did not meet expectations and didn’t bring anything new to broaden its show. Which is why I think it came as no surprise that Thick Mistress was chosen to move on to the next round, the semifinal shows. We’ve only got three shows left. Calling Grace, Edenforge, Artificial Stars and Thick Mistress are all that remain. Who will be crowned the champion of the BAND6k Battle of the Bands? We’ll find out in less than a month.