Nightlife: Band battle squared away with metal taste

photo by Greg Wood/special to knoxville.com
Members of the band Hudson K perform during the Sound Off finals at the Square Room.

photo by Greg Wood/special to knoxville.com Members of the band Hudson K perform during the Sound Off finals at the Square Room.

photo by Greg Wood/special to knoxville.com
Members of the band Hudson K perform during the Sound Off finals at the Square Room.

photo by Greg Wood/special to knoxville.com Members of the band Hudson K perform during the Sound Off finals at the Square Room.

photo by Greg Wood/special to knoxville.com
Brandi Cawood and Chip Daves take in the Sound Off finals at the Square Room.

photo by Greg Wood/special to knoxville.com Brandi Cawood and Chip Daves take in the Sound Off finals at the Square Room.

photo by Greg Wood/special to knoxville.com
Matt Foster, left, joins singer/keyboardist Christina Horn of Hudson K, a finalist in the Sound Off competition.

photo by Greg Wood/special to knoxville.com Matt Foster, left, joins singer/keyboardist Christina Horn of Hudson K, a finalist in the Sound Off competition.

Square Room

  • 4 Market Square
  • 865-544-4199

Months ago Square Room launched the Sound Off, a battle of the bands competition. They wanted it to be more than a typical competition with large stakes (recording-studio time, radio play and an opener slot at Sundown in the City), and judging by the enormous turnout by enthusiastic fans at last week's final round, they succeeded.

The setup was simple. Each month 5-6 bands performed two original songs and one cover of an artist determined by Square Room that month. A panel of four judges scored the bands, with audience cheering factoring in as well.

The chosen cover artists have jumped genres - from the Beatles to Prince, Radiohead and Motown. Hair metal was the selected style for the finals.

For better or worse, several of the bands chose to stretch the definition of this term exceeding the '80s spandex-wearing bands with screeching vocalists and reverb-laden wailing guitars. It seemed to go mostly unnoticed by the judges, who would give small commentary after each performance.

The finals consisted of the winners from each of the previous round, and everyone brought their A-game. Hair metal is a tricky genre considering bands like Guns N' Roses and Van Halen lack sincere or interesting lyrics. The songs don't operate on more than one level and hinge on over-the-top guitar solos, which provides the cover band with a large obstacle to master or the daring challenge of changing the style.

And early on Hudson K, the second act to perform, amazed with a cover of Van Halen's "Right Now." Their piano-based sound lent itself well to the cover, and their violinist managed to make up for the fact their band lacks a guitarist - something that the judges pointed out. They also created a slide show for the event, mimicking the song's classic music video, saying things like, "Right now you aren't reading this because you are texting :)"

Personally, anyone brave enough to cover Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen deserves some kind of trophy.

The music style of the finalists ranged from folk to soul to the very '80s New Wave-sounding Vinyl Thief, who was one of the two bands to stretch the hair-metal definition covering Aerosmith's "Dream On," a song pre-dating hair metal by several years. However Vinyl Thief based its cover on a frantic double-synthesizer attack and increased the tempo of the song significantly. The vocalist's wavering falsetto actually topped Stephen Tyler's vocals substantially: It sounded like Tears for Fears on speed and was one of the better performances all night.

Taylor Brown and Co., the winner of the first round, proved themselves with their high-energy performing style. Brown danced around stage wildly while playing guitar and belting vocals. He even got so into it that at one point he dropped his guitar pick and didn't even make an attempt to pick it up, strumming away with his bare hand. The group tackled the harmony-riddled "Photograph" by Def Leppard and made it fit their style perfectly, being one of the only bands to do so. And although they didn't win, they could easily have entertained a crowd of Sundown-proportion.

My interest started waning after the first few bands, and although the show's schedule was pretty tight, it felt like it was dragging. But then Lisa Cyr, manager at the Square Room, informed me that I didn't want to miss the show's final performers, Aftah Party.

Aftah Party consists of roughly 10 members (counting them was difficult, and one member came and went from song to song) featuring a small horn section, a keyboardist, a highly-skilled bassist, and both a male and female vocalist. Their style would most closely be considered soul, but they have some unconventional song progressions.

They rocked through two originals with the high-energy male singer working the entire right half of the audience, and even taking his shirt off in an Usher-esque manner. The crowd ate it up.

And then came the cover. "Do you know where you are?" their male vocalist screamed to the audience, as several music buffs instantly recognized where this was going. "You're in the jungle," he added. And if anyone hadn't caught on yet, the recognizable guitar riff of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" rang off in the background.

Aftah Party performed the GNR classic-something whose genre is the polar opposite of their own-as if it had been their life's ambition to do so. The vocalists traded off verses, working different sides of the crowd. There was jumping. There was screaming. There was singing along. Horns blazed, adding a layer to the song.

I've never seen a crowd so excited. It was one of the best cover songs I've seen in my life. Afterward, the crowd exploded and the judges gave rave reviews. Needless to say, they took the victory. You're not going to want to miss this interesting and eclectic band at Sundown.

Meanwhile, the Square Room continues to have live shows and is hosting part of the Big Ears Festival from March 26-28.

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