A few months ago, on a Saturday night, I judged a Battle of the Bands, where the best rock groups from local private high schools competed for fame, glory and $500.
"Shit, man," scoffed John Dufilho, riding next to me in the passenger seat. "If I'd known about the 500 bucks, I would've brought my band to compete." Dufilho is the lead singer of The Deathray Davies and I Love Math. He's been my best friend since high school, so I asked him to do me a favor and judge the event, too.
I basically agreed to the gig as a family favor (my niece was helping host it), but having watched some of those VH-1 Behind the Music things, I admit I also had vague hopes of discovering the next Dallas-bred pop star--another Norah Jones, Jessica Simpson or Erykah Badu. I imagined myself interviewed under soft lights, saying, "The second he/she got onstage, it was obvious to everyone in the room that he/she was going to be a superstar."
"Should we stop and get some beer?" Dufilho asked.
"Dude, it's a Catholic high school."
"So they probably won't have beer then, huh?"
Looking over the list of judges, I was surprised by whom they'd managed to get--Aden Holt, local promoter and founder of Buzz-Oven, and Broose Dickenson of TooMuchTV, whom I'd known from the old days of Deep Ellum when he had a band called Pop Poppins. I was listed as a former music critic for the Dallas Observer who's written for Vibe, Time Out New York and Wired. Impressive. What it didn't say was that I was broke and crashing on my sister's couch. Dufilho's bio accurately described his current and former bands yet left out his glamorous day job as a waiter at Cosmic Cup.
Student volunteers wearing headsets buzzed all around us.
"Wow," I thought to myself. "We didn't have headsets when I was in high school."
The walls were decorated with some drug-education student project, including a poster designed like a race track of addictions, titled "Dash for Hash."
"That's what I do when I get off the airplane in Amsterdam," Dufilho said in an Elvis-impersonator voice.
We entered the auditorium, decked out with a full stage setup and a life-size Jesus on the cross.
"Wow," I thought to myself. "We didn't have girls like this when I was in high school." I hadn't seen so many stunning girls in one place in years. It beat any nightclub hands down. I regretted not dressing a little nicer.
Dufilho leaned over and whispered, "Man, it's a good thing no one from my band came. They would've been trying to take these girls home, like, for real."
We were asked to rate the bands in the following categories: originality, stage presence and technical ability. There was also a space for written comments. As the first band took the stage, my worst fears were realized. It was as if three musicians from opposing backgrounds played simultaneously, yet indifferent to one another. The crowd heckled, and I felt the vicarious horror of teen humiliation. Finally the drummer gave up and began threatening the audience. My written critique was something like this: "Flavors of Kraftwerk, prog rock and fusion jazz, with a nod to GG Alin and Chariots of Fire and no discernible cohesion whatsoever. I know a label in Berlin that would be very interested to talk to you."
It was going to be a long night. Disappointingly, there were no girls in any of the bands. Where was the next Sleater-Kinney, Hope Sandoval or Lauryn Hill? Furthermore, where were the rappers and DJs? There weren't even any black people anywhere. I can't bear to see another generation stuck in the same format: four white guys playing guitars and drums. The rest of the world has progressed beyond that--why can't Dallas?
But there were pleasant surprises, like the Jesuit High School band Casual. When these guys hit the stage, I was blown away. Not only by their ability to rock, but by the musical influences that extended well beyond their age--it was as though they'd digested the best of 1980s British rock, from XTC to the dawn of Pulp, and emerged with something all their own. They ended their three-song set with a cover from Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold as Love that sounded like it'd been played by the Stone Roses. Fucking brilliant. After their set, I asked 18-year-old lead singer Bill Stevenson and his bandmates what life was like for them at Jesuit High School. "Everybody hates us," he said. "We're total geeks." I explained to them that there was no greater compliment. It's a sign of great things to come. Case in point: Feature Friday. Here was a band adored by their peers. They had CDs for sale, probably a manager and a record deal to boot. What they didn't have, however, was a soul. In my critique, I explained how sad it was to see kids so young sell out so early. They were a band custom-made for commercial alternative (a paradox if ever there was one) radio, and I hated them for it. Apparently so did the other judges, because they didn't even score in the top three--despite legions of Linkin Park fans swearing they were "the shit."
"Soon you'll be playing Edge Fest, and people will be saying, 'Dude, you rock,'" I prophesied unto them. "But then, what do I know? I'm just a dumb rock critic."
I was prepared to call it a night when Dressed for Autumn took the stage, second to last. They came out of nowhere, like Seabiscuit, and stole the show. When you see a young kid with as much talent as front man Jairus Withrow, it's both humbling and awe-inspiring. Armed with an acoustic guitar, Beck-ish good looks, a sweet voice and some very heavy songwriting reminiscent of Bono's vaguely religious lyrics, this kid was amazing. The girls screamed his name, and I wrote it down in my notebook, because I think it's one the world may soon know. The fact that Dressed is a "Christian" band will no doubt be a hindrance. But then, consider what Jessica Simpson accomplished. God willing, there could come a day when Dressed for Autumn is doing booty videos instead of leading prayer circles. Though, in my mind, there's room for both.
As the winners were announced (Dressed took first prize, with Casual coming in a very respectable second), Dufilho and I began edging toward the exit. The kids had been given back their score cards, along with all our commentaries.
"Take off those stupid skull caps, for Godssake. Grunge is dead!!???" I overheard one pissed-off teenager read to his bandmates. The score card bore my signature.
"Power chords, power chords, blah, blah, blah!!???" another kid yelled incredulously, ripping my commentary sheet into shreds.
I tossed the car keys to Dufilho. "Here, man. You drive."
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Later that night, at a CD release party in Expo Park, safe inside a bar where no one under 21 could seek revenge, Dufilho sympathized with the young rockers.
"I remember my first show in high school," he said. "I was so nervous I felt sick."
I thought about the kids, too, realizing some of them probably wouldn't sleep that night. Then I looked up at the struggling band of guys in their mid-30s, playing for an audience of about 10 people, and realized the Battle of the Bands can teach aspiring musicians at least one thing. An honest critic is your best friend.