After three months and 14 rigorous battles with 23 music acts, the BAND6k battle of the bands culminated in a one-on-one grand finals match between two Sioux City rock bands: Calling Grace and Artificial Stars.
Knowing full well what both bands are capable of by this point in the competition, I deduced this particular battle would be a clash of styles. Calling Grace has a modernized approach to music with its distinct look, consistent set pieces and emphasis on creating a live show to match its marketable rock sound; Artificial Stars is about as equally prepared and rehearsed as its competitors, but is more straight forward in its performances and relies heavily on its dynamic song structures to stir a crowd’s interest. Neither of these approaches is “wrong” or stronger than the other. So what does all that mean then? It meant we were in for a good night of music.
Calling Grace kicked off the night in its usual way: a video intro. My stances on intros are well documented (short story is: I’m not particularly fond of them), but I’ve fairly enjoyed this band’s take on these show starting cinematics. This one was especially grandiose. The room went dark and the two flat screens hovering above either side of the Anthem stage lit up; a voice chronicled Calling Grace’s journey up to this point, which paired well with the interstellar visuals; they even tossed in a jab at their current opponent (“simply artificial,” it said).
When the intro concluded, that was guitarist Logan Lansink’s queue to start the show with an aggressive riff. (Editor's note: It was later confirmed that guitarist Alex Newman began the show.) Calling Grace’s fans roared in approval. These folks were easy to spot, too. If they weren’t already wearing Calling Grace t-shirts, then they were sporting green glowstick necklaces or donning headbands with alien head antennas attached onto springs. The preference for that particular color was also shared by members of the band, and they wore it proudly.
As soon as singer Shawn Fertig stepped foot onstage, he looked as comfortable as could be. This was his stage to command and he did so with great confidence and charisma. He committed himself to every song and took pleasure in hyping up the crowd gathering at his feet. At times he’d get down low to the stage and perch himself in a way that he could almost leap into the crowd, all the while deliberately connecting to his audience and listening to them sing the words to his band’s songs.
Fertig improved greatly compared to the very first battle Calling Grace played. As did Newman on guitar, who at first wouldn’t play up his guitar solos, but has since made sure to draw attention to himself during those moments. However, the guitarist I was probably drawn to the most this round was Lansink. The guy has done well blending in with his band during the rest of the competition, but this time he really stood out, making those distinct riffs feel way stronger than they have in the past – although there did seem to be an instance where he was rushing or mistimed his part
Keeping the band centered was its consistent rhythm section. Bassist Billy Pelchat and drummer Jake Rains kept everyone in check, with the latter giving yet another lively performance behind the kit. (Did anyone see him playing with one hand near the end?) After the first three or four songs, the setlist began to melt into itself and songs were becoming less and less distinct. However, there was a bit of variance midway through the set. Calling Grace brought back its pseudo-acoustic version of “No Superman” and performed two covers. The band closed the night appropriately with Simple Minds’ “Don't You (Forget About Me),” but the other cover tune was a brand new addition to the BAND6k battle, “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones. A guest vocalist played the part of Merry Clayton, delivering chilling vocals to the immediately recognizable song.
The crowd reacted well to Calling Grace’s original songs (especially “Leading To You,” which was reserved for the second to last spot in the band’s set). The look of sheer joy on Fertig’s face when he noticed his audience singing along to the band’s own tunes was absolutely priceless; by now, BAND6k regulars ought to know at least a verse or two. The combination of Calling Grace’s repertoire of radio-ready rock tunes, distinct look and attention to detail made for an entertaining rock show. Hell, the band went out of its way to turn Anthem into a place to party; even more so when Fertig flung a bag of glowing green balloons into the sea of people gathered around the stage.
What has impressed me most about Calling Grace is its uncompromising decision to market itself and treat the battle seriously, without succumbing to blatant sh** talking or draining the fun out of the competition altogether. They were prepared and they had a desire to really win the competition. Calling Grace is a band that thrives in a live environment, and it chooses to give its audience an exhilarating experience to envelopment themselves in. Much like Road To Vegas champion Arson City and Road To Vegas 2 finalist Devour Once Dead, Calling Grace relies on a pronounced look and feel to complement its hard-edged rock tunes. And the crowd loved it.
Closing the night, obviously, was Artificial Stars. As soon as host Brad Streeter finished his closing remarks and shout outs, the band burst to life. No intros, no fuss, no awkward walk on – just straight to the point. Push play. I was taken aback by how much energy the band was producing from the very start. Throughout the battle, that has been Artificial Stars’ strongest asset. These guys come ready to play and give an energetic performance. No gimmicks. No bells and whistles. Just straight up music. Every time the band has been onstage, it just seemed to get louder and more polished. I thought by now we had already seen the band turn it up to 11. I was wrong. This was straight up intense.
The newfound energy and fervor did make for a few slipups in the sound quality, at least compared to other shows from Artificial Stars. But it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was the kind of messy playing you’d expect from a punk band, for instance. This felt natural and feral. What might have been a mistake was masked by the band’s unyielding energy. Most surprising was that Artificial Stars maintained that level of energy throughout the show. Every song was played as if it was the band’s last.
And the crowd was invested every second. Part of what makes Artificial Stars enjoyable to listen to is its structured dynamics embedded into each song. The music ebbs and flows in big ways, and the listeners react accordingly. Artificial Stars has carefully crafted its songs to make its audience move around, dance or make noise. It comes in many forms. At times it is a melodic vocal part or a catchy chorus (like in “Fake It” or “Bury Me”) and at other times it’s the inevitable instrumental breakdown. The only other comparison I can equate this method to is that of an EDM bass drop. You know it’s coming, and when it does you know you’re going to respond.
Every single member of the band was on point that night; as evidenced by the unmitigated volume of sweat that had accumulated on their faces, soaked into their clothes, and coated their instruments. Throughout the competition, Artificial Stars have consistently delivered fairly kinetic performances, but this was something else. Singer and guitarist Neil Strub was belting out his rugged vocals with a fiery intensity; his voice choked and caved in at parts, desperately forcing out those notes from deep within his gut. When Strub wasn’t singing, he was bouncing around the stage, always moving. Then again, that’s always been a habit of every member of Artificial Stars; especially the band’s charming bassist, Jesús Iñiguez, who, in addition to being a positive spirit onstage, was always going back and forth between his two guitarists, playing alongside them for short periods and slapping the ever-living sh**out of his instrument.
But the guy who really got to show off his talents on an instrument that night was singer and guitarist Jeff Koithan. The guy was completely unleashed this round. Koithan was given plenty room to show off his technical abilities as a guitarist with frequent solos and some headbangin’ guitar riffs (see “Taking Aim”). And you knew when it was time for Koithan to strut his stuff, so to speak. He’d step forward into the spotlight, arch his neck toward the ceiling and clench his eyes shut. He’d let himself go. He was in his own little world. And you were right there, a part of it all. You could see him truly feel the sweet release of music that had probably been bottled up inside him.
Behind the three guitarists was drummer Luke Sweeney, one of the best in this competition. He’s consistent, yes, but his play always feels fresh. He knows his part and he’s mastered his flow. Never once does Sweeney appear hesitant. Those sticks in his hands aren’t just tools or a means to an end -- they’re god damn weapons. He sweeps and strikes at the kit, knowing full well what he’s capable off, cutting the rhythms to manageable pieces and enhancing his fellow bandmates play and energy. And, hell, if he feels like it, Sweeney just dances behind the kit and finds time to have some fun.
This was, by far, Artificial Stars’ best performance. It was hype. It was unrelenting. It was… a real surprise. Throughout the battle, the band had done little to change its show, playing relatively the same set list of songs in a different order. And yet, every performance was greater than the next, building up to one helluva climax in the BAND6k grand finals. Judges noticed this. After much deliberation, the panel decided the winner of BAND6k was Artificial Stars.
Calling Grace gave its audience a grand show and showed off its marketable rock repertoire and tour-ready setup. Artificial Stars answered back with a tenacious performance that was full of energy, and it also managed to have its audience cling onto every song from start to finish. The crowd was feeding off that energy and was compelled to move and react and shout with explicit exuberance.
This was an acceptable end to a hard fought battle. An image from that night remains imprinted in by memory. It was the aftermath of Artificial Stars’ set. I remember seeing their faces. Their cheeks were flushed and their mouths just sort of hung open, letting air into their lungs. They hobbled off the stage like labor workers clocking out after a 12-hour shift. Koithan, Strub, Iñiguez and Sweeney just gave it their all; they worked their asses off.
I think that’s worth a $6,000 paycheck. Don’t you?