1. "Hello, Denver!"
2. "Let's make some noise!"
3. "Are you ready to rock?"
Although these sayings should be reserved for cheesy '80s hair bands and Spinal Tap, their longevity attests to the strength of the battle-of-the-bands tradition: Bands have been competing this way for as long as rock and roll's been around. Ernie Ball, one of the world's largest manufacturers of guitar strings, sponsors an annual national battle-of-the-bands tour, and Concerts First holds a "pay to play" competition several times a year. In 2001, VH1 even devoted a weekly reality-style series to bands doing battle, called Bands on the Run. Over eight weeks and thirteen episodes, it pitted four struggling acts against each other. Viewers learned the mechanics of organizing such events, but the real entertainment came from watching the antics of bandmembers after they'd consumed many beers and other substances. While the series didn't do much for the bands themselves -- even though one of the prizes was the promise of heavy rotation on VH1 -- it gave aspiring musicians a feel for the rock-and-roll lifestyle, as well as the rush that comes from playing live shows.
Competing in a BOTB is an intimidating rite of passage for any new band. The concept -- having a bunch of groups go up against each other, giving each thirty or forty minutes to play (with hopefully no more than five of those used for a sound check) in front of an audience that has never heard them, then letting the crowd's noise level determine who wins -- has inspired many young musicians to either puke or pass out, or both. Still, contests give bands a chance to perform for a live audience, and maybe pick up a fan or two. Bands eagerly sign on for these humbling endurance tests for the same reasons they serve as opening acts: They get to play at venues bigger than the Lion's Lair or Cricket on the Hill, and some even have a great time doing it.
Entering the ring at Rock Island on Friday, January 14, courtesy of Ben Davis of Soda Jerk Presents, is Denver vs. Colorado Springs, a battle featuring two groups from each city. "Colorado Springs is a little rougher around the edges," Davis says, "whereas with Denver, you have to be a little better to get in the venues. But we have four bands on this that are really good."
Denver may be bigger and have more venues, but Colorado Springs has been called the "heavy-metal capital of the world" with some justification, so the competition may be closer than you'd expect. The lineup: They Murdered Miracles and Miami Vice-dressing Harrison Bergeron from the Springs, and the Black Out Pact (just back from New York) and Grace Gale representing Denver. "The bands range between hard rock and hardcore, but they're all fun bands," Davis adds. "The point of the whole night is to go check out new stuff."
And to yell, so that your favorite wins the trophy. And to watch parents of budding musicians hide out in the back, trying not to look out of place. Friends should hang out up front, since this may be their only chance to hear their buddies play -- ever. Supportive fans of up-and-coming rock and roll can stand anywhere, just as long as they go.
Remember, you could be surprised by what you hear. You might even like it. So, are you ready to rock? -- Jerri Theil