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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #525
Battle of the Bands
David Gunn

"The Fabulous Nortons. Celeritous Snail. The Hermaphrobites. Tutankhamenorrhagia. Randy Crab." The announcer pronounces each name as carefully as a caribou negotiates a water slide. "Bob's Big House of Gout. Tablespoor. The Torrid Toroids. Ten Whales Over Pittsburgh. Propylene Glycolostomy." As each name is read, a group of young men and women in the huge auditorium stands up, some gesticulating in triumph to the stage at the front, which draws cheers and whistles from the audience. "Uncles and Angst. San Fernando Samurai. Blefro. Adam Smith and the Smithereens. Adobe Hat." Boise sits nervously near the back of the auditorium tapping his trumpet against his knee as five more names are called. Fifteen down, five to go, for only twenty bands are selected for the International Cover Band Battle of the Bands. "The Nylon Expansion Goulash Squad. Maraca Madness."--someone in the balcony shrieks over this selection, precipitating gentle snickering from the rest of the audience. "Ace's Linoleum Band and Causeway. The Inscrutable Asterisk." Only one band remains. The announcer pauses for effect. He sips from a glass of water on the lectern and pretends to wipe a bead of sweat from his brow. Boise's throat is bone-dry. Over the last three months, he and his mates had practiced hard for this opportunity. They prided themselves on learning every single nuance of each piece that they cover. Their dead-on performances made them the toast of Toledo, their home town. But now they are in Des Moines competing with two hundred and sixty-some bands from all across Iowa. Some of them had already headlined at corporate parties and casinos in Omaha and even Chicago.

The announcer clears his throat and says simply "Hoover." The audience erupts in applause as the stage band breaks into a slightly out of focus version of "Stayin' Alive." Boise is momentarily crestfallen. But then he realizes that Hoover--the Humor-Only Orchestra of Vermont--is not from Iowa and, therefore, ineligible. Others must have known it, too, for a woman sporting the official IC3B bearded haggis badge slips onto the stage and whispers into the announcer's ear. The latter shrugs, then raises his hands for silence. "The band known as 'Hoover' has been disallowed," he intones. More whistles and hoots follow this declaration. The announcer sips some more water, waiting till the audience settles down. Finally, he leans into the microphone and says "Hordes o' Homonyms." Boise whoops and leaps so high out of his seat that he nearly hits the overhead piñata with his mouthpiece. His time has come. His band is in!

Lexann, Jerome, Oneida and Merle--the rest of the Homonyms--were in the lobby, having traded away their seats in the auditorium for a dozen caribou thalamus pies. Boise could never understand their devotion to this glutinous and unpalatable "brain food," but he had to admit that it did wonders for them. Directly after downing a pie or two, the band always played with an extra fiery zeal. But they had heard the announcement over the PA and, when Boise joins them, they are just as excited as he is. As they high-six one another--their supplementary digits are likely a result of Toledo's colossal uranium farm--they listen to the announcement of the battle pairings. Well, there will be no time for worry. The Homonyms are up first against Adam Smith and the Smithereens.

Boise and his mates have only fifteen minutes to slip into matching lime green leisure suits and grab their instruments before the emcee sounds the klaxon and announces the two bands. The Smithereens stomp onto the stage first. Clad in purple spandex jodhpurs trimmed with blue faux fur, and brandishing theremins as if they're cudgels, Boise thinks they quite missed the degree of fierceness for which they supposedly stove. The six Smithereens throw their theremins into a pile--again, Boise thinks the spectacle is a bit much--then pull out their real instruments: flute, oboe, mandolin, guitar, violin and cello. At a signal from the emcee and a downbeat from Adam, they begin--Swan Song No. 1, by Milton Babbitt.

For sure, this isn't your typical battle of the bands. Each of the two hundred and sixty-some groups specializes in covering the music of Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Ligeti, Pierre Boulez, John Adams, Phil "Fiber" Glass, Laurie Spiegel, Fred Rzewski, "Uncle Miltie" and scores of other contemporary and avant-garde composers. And they endeavor to copy the original ensembles' performances right down to the height of their music stands.

As the eleven-minute Song lurches from bleep to bloop, breaking conventional tonal boundaries as if they're slices of Melba toast, the Smithereens add a synchronized dance routine--rudimentary, but stylish and effective. Boise groans. The Homonyms have some dance steps, too, but now they'd look like copycats if they employed them. But ... what's this? The cellist is suddenly a whole measure ahead! Collectively, the audience gasps. Of course, most of them know the Babbitt backwards and forwards, too, and each little mistake is like a splash of hydrochloric acid on a suppurating furuncle. The tempo of the Song slows until the cellist is in synch with the rest of the Smithereens, then they all sprint to the finish line hell bent for leather. It is indeed a rousing finish, and the audience applauds like crazy, but that mid-course correction may cost them.

The Smithereens move to the side of the stage to make room for the Homonyms. Boise blows silently through his trumpet as he makes eye contact with the rest of the band: Jerome on bass clarinet, Oneida on electronics, Merle on bass, and Lexann, the soprano. He can't suppress a smirk. Their blazing rendition of Stockhausen's "Sirius," which compresses the ninety-six minute tune into a mere quarter hour, has never failed to impress!

But before he can give the downbeat, a furor erupts backstage. And then, Just Waldo, a militant group of a cappellists that covers the music of Carlo Gesualdo and other murderous tunesmiths of the Renaissance, breaks through the security ring and dashes onto the stage. Grabbing the microphone, they launch into a tenebrous version of "Moro lasso." But for the crowd booing plus shouts of indignation from the security team, it would be a heart-rendingly beautiful performance.

Just Waldo continues to sing as they are roughly escorted off stage by six burly guards to the accompaniment of a mixture of cheers and boos. Once the audience has settled down again, Boise nods to Lexann. With a startling ululation that evokes the image of an idiot savant pouring slurry over himself, Sirius is underway!

At times, the five instruments sound like twenty, at other times, like moss growing on a single pebble. Each hemidemisemi quivering quaver is charged with emotion. Merle's bass solo at the midpoint is electrifying; the mercurial back and forth duet of Jerome and Oneida is positively salacious. Boise decides to nix the dance steps; the Homonyms don't need them. And a thunderous outburst from the audience that follows the final chord seems to bear that out. Even the Smithereens acknowledge the bang-up performance with a polite hand. The judges agree, awarding 81 points to the Smithereens and 102 to the Homonyms.

They'd won Round 1 handily, but three more increasingly challenging clashes remain. And The Nylon Expansion Goulash Squad--with their shockingly quirky covers of the entire oeuvre of Noah Creshevsky--is still the band to beat.

As the next two bands line up on the stage to battle, we must pause to engage in another battle royal, the 525th Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar. But if you think today's episode is contentious, just wait till our end-of-series Komposers' Kombat, now a mere two and a half months away. Sores and gore, galore! But that's then; this is now; and so on to Kalvos.