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Battle of the Bands offers a good mix of tunes

Battle of the Bands:

The Finals

A Student Center Committee Presentation.

Lobdell Court.

April 6, 9 p.m.

By Dan Dunn
Night Editor

Battle of the Bands was another success this year, boasting a large and enthusiastic crowd despite the lack of advertisement. This year was strongly oriented towards original compositions, with three bands fighting for the best original band and only two finalists for the best cover band.

The first band for the evening, Shifty, was original. They started playing shortly after nine to a relatively small and low-energy crowd. The first songs got only polite claps, but as the set progressed, the crowd warmed to them, with the final song receiving rousing applause and yells. The band's songs were mellow and bluesy without stretching into protracted jam sessions. The guitar riffs were great; a couple of the solos called to mind a more full version of the ringing instrumentals that made R.E.M. great.

The second band, Hidden Agenda, was also original. This band is made up of MIT students with fairly strong individual musical talent. I expect that each of them puts on a good show, but their songs were too trite. Their music in some ways reminded me of the Ident-a-Rock bands of the early '80s; it was like 45 minutes of Air Supply, REO Speedwagon, and Kansas, but not nearly as catchy.

Still, their set list could have worked with a different style. But they had a more fundamental flaw: They lacked a stage presence. The singers were rooted in place, singing as if from a book. The lyrics seemed to be simply words that were belted out in sync with the music. The drums were there to set the beat; the guitar and keyboard were to set the melodies, and the bass was to back them up. But these elements never link up into a band: they never come together to perform for the audience.

The third band was a cover band called Strawdogs; they had the fire that Hidden Agenda lacked. Band frontman Wes Williams '96 opened the set with the comment: "The last time we played some people got arrested. Please don't hurt anyone." It was a fair request, because the set list was a hard-rocking crowd pleaser with a strong Seattle tilt: Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Queensrche, Guns 'n' Roses, and a strong Metallica finish. Williams covered the songs well, but more importantly, he had an excellent stage presence that really got the crowd involved in the set. But the real star of the show was lead guitarist Kevin Borland '96, who handled the most intricate melodies with great skill.

The next band, the second and final cover band, was the big surprise of the evening. They called themselves Son BoriCuba. Trumpeter Fermin Garcia '97 described his band as an "Afro-cuban and Caribbean rhythm band." In the middle of the college/alternative music scene, you have to be a little shocked that a band with such a different style of music could succeed, but succeed they did. I only recognized one song, Santana's "Oye Como Va," but that didn't keep me from liking their sound.

This band relied on the performances of its lead singer and trumpeter. The singer was personable and energetic, and knew how to play to the large crowd on the floor and in the seats. Garcia not only played his pieces with precision and heart, but he doubled as an extra percussionist when not actually on the trumpet.

The thing that really made this band was their ability to make the crowd move. As you would expect, their fans were down in front of the stage cheering and dancing. But more importantly, people who had never heard them before could be seen toe-tapping and dancing around the room. These guys were clearly enjoying themselves, and they knew how to make the people in the crowd enjoy themselves as well. In the judges' collective opinion, this excitement was superior to Strawdogs set list, and they named Son BoriCuba the cover band winners.

The final band, Zed Bacchus, came on late, but were well worth the wait. They were very similar to Shifty, but clearly wrote and played at a higher level. Their music had stronger blues influence, and tended towards longer jams rather than songs. The lead singer, Eugene Chuang '96, had a mellow and engaging manner. His calls of "Oh, yeah!" brought the crowd to its feet over and over. And their talent was without question; halfway through the set, the lead guitarist and bassist simply exchanged guitars.

Unfortunately, the Campus Police and the Student Center Committee shut the event down in the middle of their set, at about 12:45 a.m. I would have loved to hear more, but I'll have to catch them at one of their performances at local venues, be they at the Middle East or the Tam. The judges agreed with me, and picked Zed Bacchus as the original winner.