The University Activities Board-sponsored Battle of the Bands left much to the imagination for many of the MSU students who traversed the chilly winds of campus to take part in the way-too-long five hours of a relatively uninspiring combat-style musical festival.
[banner]However, don’t let this ragtag group of music journalists fool you- there were some passionate acts that really did do it for the music (not just the nookie). Frontier Ruckus, an obvious example of what is good about college music, won the event with a sigh of relief from all of us- the judges chose right. In second place was The Royal We, who provided a fresh alternative to singing laden with guitar strings- rapping in front of guitar anthems worked for Rage, so why not The Royal We? Third place went to The Stationary Set, who, although provided a somewhat tired sound of fragile rock (not to be confused with Fraggle Rock), played a tight set.
Not Bad But Not the Next Music Mecca by Erik Adams
Reviewing a Battle of the Bands can be a sensitive process, particularly if it’s school-sponsored. While they must give their opinion of the battling acts, the reviewers must not hold these acts to the standards to which they hold their iPod fodder. If they’ve got talent, that’s great, but if they don’t, they shouldn’t be derided for spending their daylight hours in a series of lecture halls.
That being said, I was 80 percent unimpressed with what I saw of this year’s MSU Battle of the Bands. My main complaint? A general lack of inventiveness. In a school of 45,166 students, you’d think there would be more willingness to step outside the conventional forms of pop that were on display March 31.
[frontier]In spite of this, I have to give credit to the University Activities Board for putting together a lineup that pretty much covered every genre of music I imagine college students listening to, from the hippie jam fare of The Family Tree and Jose Mango to the over-stimulated ska of Thursday by Six. And it was good to see the most obviously adventurous and talented band, rootsy folkies Frontier Ruckus, walk away as the battle’s victor. Any band that employs the use of a singing saw automatically gets my vote.
It should also be noted that watching 11 bands play from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. is exhausting. I realize that rock ‘n’ roll and the wee hours of the day are two great tastes that taste great together, but the scope of the Battle of the Bands demands an earlier starting time. Whether Eddie Van Halen or that dude who sits behind you in IAH plays it, guitar solos should not be met with yawns.
Our fair land grant institution isn’t the next Seattle (or Montreal…or Portland…or Austin), so a mostly-uninspiring Battle of the Bands isn’t a shock. And even though the acts didn’t seem to aspire to anything beyond the realm of multi-band competition, they did look like they were having a good time (in the case of the mincing goons in Thursday by Six, too much of a good time). Sometimes, that’s all you should want from rock ‘n’ roll.
High Energy, High Egos by Megan Merritt
I arrived slightly behind my Arts & Culture compadres, just in time to catch the folksy Frontier Ruckus, with interesting instruments and a backup female singer. Their first tune, \”Epiphanies and Revelations\” conjured a small group of followers near the front, dancing happily. With a large composition of members and a strong sense of band unity, the Ruckus turned on the organic lyrics, staying in tow with comical metaphor and utilizing each member\’s capacity. On one of the tunes- a desolate homage to Detroit- I caught the lyric \”the water towers are drunker than grandfathers,\” and smiled remembering all those holiday eggnogs shared with the elders.
Next up was The Jaded Reason, touting lyrics of college angst with fancy, melodramatic guitar licks. The music was simple, to an untrained ear, and the sound left much to be desired. I will say that the band members\’ enthusiasm was never in doubt, and they strummed their guitars as though they were opening for The Clash. But despite the stage ego, the Reason was droning and left more heartfelt rocking to be desired.
Jose Mango was the quintessential jam band that I had been anticipating from the get-go. As the band members were setting up shop onstage, I questioned whether the keyboardist should be wearing an Umphrey\’s McGee t-shirt. As if reading my mind, he turned it inside out and relieved my onstage-presence-qualms about the duties of musicians. The sound opened in a very loungey fashion that was comforting on a sleepy Friday night. The melodic stream-of-consciousness type of free-flowing smooth jazz was comforting and it was obvious that members were aware of their instruments capabilities, and instead of looking to exploit them, they worked in unison.
Molly-Jean’s somewhat shy stage-presence reminded me of the vulnerable years of early college life. Heartbreak, defeat, closure, rapture – it was all there. [molly]Her voice was sweet and reminiscent of Patsy Cline at times, similarly using inflection and breaking words down into short syllables. There was a poutiness, attitude and overall confidence that she gave life to, but her voice was unstable at times. The moments of talking and recollecting angry memories seemed effortless, but hitting the high notes was at times a stretch. Overall M.J. produced a nice sound, remained interpretable for a college audience and her drummer also helped create a modern sound.
The Royal We opened with a haiku mainly about beer and rap music. This was obviously a great decision that excited the crowd and left us wondering what their lyrics would entail. Energy was at a high as a small fan-base collected before the stage, and the lead \’singer\’ opened by clutching his mic and rapping. Their sound was mimetic of Rage Against the Machine, but not as politically aware or as angry. A lot of the words sounded muffled and during the first song, the only words I could capture were \”arrested development\” and \”wasted.\” Bringing a new sound and offering an element of surprise, the Royal We demonstrated a fresh vibe, but may have been too enraptured in their stage egos and not their actual sound.
I just kept thinking Iron Maiden \”Run to the Hills\” when Squeezebox started whaling away. The guitars went big, the crowd involvement a bit dramatic but engaged, and the lead singer\’s voice went mediocre and contrived. Calling back to a generic 80s stylized influence, Erik Adams and I agreed that the sound was very \”Poison and not so much Axl Rose.\”
The Stationary Set grew on me as I tried to enliven my senses after a dwindling night of music. The indie-esq band called attention to strong guitars, sensitive lyrics and moments of tenderness. The lead singer reminded me of Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, with moments of quiet confession sans guitar, romanticized lyrics and tenderness. The S.S. was keenly aware of their ability to go with intense sound, and then draw it back down to a quietness that reverberated with the audience.
The ska band, Thursday by Six, brought stage energy even as they were setting up their equipment and fiddling with their checkered guitar straps. There was a wave of brass instruments, youthful energy and anxiousness to please their small fan base up front, and the still-left-over crowd. But as they began to play, the electric guitars drowned the horn section, which for a ska band seemed sacrilegious. The lead singer\’s voice went unnoticed, as the unbalanced volume of the guitars dominated, and the fusion of sound became an unintelligible mess. But what Thursday by Six did lack in musical performance, they made up for in overall enthusiasm and ability to entertain. The lead singer actually jumped off the stage, skanked in the crowd with some fans and later in the set, knocked over his mic stand. Rock \’n roll.
A Battle? Says Who? by Cara Binder
For the most part I was not overly impressed with the Battle of the Bands, but, then again, I never really am. The good part about battles is that usually the most deserving band comes out as the winner – thankfully, this happened at MSU. The winner, a bluegrass/folk band called Frontier Ruckus, gave the audience an excellent sampling of their talent. The dancing crowd responded wonderfully with questions like, “Who are these guys?” and “Why have I never heard of them before?” I have seen the band perform previously, sans the new drummer and female vocalist. [zach]The band stands wonderfully alone, but adding the drummer was a nice addition. The female vocalist, however, seemed to be there only because it looks cute to have a girl on stage in a flowery dress; she added nothing to the vocal harmonies. Regardless, Frontier Ruckus clearly stood above the rest and showed the judges that they were indeed the most unique and worthy of the grand prize.
Several of the other bands were mediocre at best with a few gems, namely The Family Tree, Jose Mango, and The Royal We, standing out as commendable opponents. The Family Tree had a nice sound and featured an upright bass, which is a sure way to my heart. Jose Mango was a Phish/String Cheese Incident/any other jam-band type of group. Showing incredible ease with their instruments, Jose Mango seemed to be the most experienced that performed and without doubt the one that I could listen to for the longest period of time.
If there were a category for best band name, The Royal We would win. Hands down. It is because of their name that I was so excited for them to come on stage, and they delivered. They broke up the night with an impressive amount of energy and a genre of music that wasn’t heard from anyone else. Their rock and rap was done very well, when at times this combination seems forced. Other than these four aforementioned bands, the battle wasn’t too hard to fight in, but at times it was quite difficult to watch.
Where My Girls At? by Molly Benningfield
Perhaps it was the long day I already had. Or maybe the music was just so dreary, but during the last act of the night, I took a brief one-minute nap and rustled with a start after realizing I was upright in a hard-backed chair with trumpets, trombones and screaming in front of me- not swaddled within the purple comforter I so longed to be in.
But there were a few acts in which I was extremely happy with. The addition of a singing saw and melodica by Zach Nichols added to the Fronteir Ruckus\’ already diverse instrumental bill. Singer/guitarist Matt Milia created a Bob Dylan-esque impression with his harmonica attached firmly near his vocal chords and an air of the folksy Midwesterner’s lyrically driven tunes. The Dylan influences are steadfast and dominant, creatively mixed into a full band of harmonizing bluegrass kids. My only complaint? Get rid of the girl (not that I am anti-girl power.) Her vocals were overtaken by Milia and the rest of the instruments, and her stage presence was too timid and demure. Frontier Ruckus should exist as a powerful five-piece.
Besides the Ruckus, The Royal We was really the only band that stuck out for me- in a good way, of course. I’m a big fan of mixing musical genres, as long as it’s done right, and The Royal We did a good job of integrating rap and rock. Oh, and it’s much better than that Jay Z/Linkin Park thing.
I liked the demure and coy guitar strumming of Molly-Jean with a nice mix of angry girl rock; the soothing jams of both The Family Tree and Jose Mango; the energy of the house party band, The Jaded Reason; and the great audience interaction by Squeezebox and Thursday by Six. [jaded]
And what I liked most was the very idea that these kids I go to school with are working hard to make their bands work. Something that was missing for me? Girl Power! Where are the Spice Girls when you need ‘em? Maybe I’ll start a band for next year’s battle…

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