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At the H.O.R.D.E. Band to Band Combat show on February 26 at Gibson's, packing the court with friends and loyalists was the only way a competing band had any chance of victory. The show featured five local bands--Honey Child, Jamie's Brother, Sledville, Kongo Shock, and Satellite--competing for a slot at this summer's H.O.R.D.E. Festival stop in Phoenix, at Desert Sky Pavilion. The winner was determined by fan voting at the show, which meant that if your fans didn't come out en masse, you'd get buried by the competition.
That didn't seem to be a problem for any of the competitors. Right from the start of the five-hour marathon, you would hear those excessive bursts of excitement that sound more like planned partisanship than spontaneous euphoria.
The contest recalled that moment in The Man With Two Brains when Steve Martin turns to his wife after they've made love for the first time and says, "I never, ever thought it could be so . . . professional." Though inspiration and originality were often in short supply on this night, the evening was at all times so very professional.
Of course, if professionalism really meant squat, then Quarterflash would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Bob Dylan would still be begging for an open-mike gig. At its best, it's a means to an end. Too often at the H.O.R.D.E. contest, it felt like a means to nothing.
The opening band, Honey Child, was a case in point. In a way, Honey Child best represented what we generally think of as the H.O.R.D.E. aesthetic. The sextet played pleasantly funky rock--not Bootsy Collins funky, more like the kind of laid-back groovesmanship that Steve Miller handed down to the Spin Doctors. The band had the requisite percussionist, and it showed an inclination to jam, albeit with taste and restraint. The band's musicianship was impeccable as always, and Heather Higgs showcased her powerful vocal instrument, but the band's songs remain too run-of-the-mill to register, and the grooves aren't captivating enough to pick up the slack.
Jamie's Brother was the odd band out at the contest. This quintet is the Alice in Chains of the local scene, forever straddling the fence between alt-rock and metal. In fact, when lead singer Jeff Harmon leaned into a harmony with guitarists Chris Wright or Chris Nelson, the results were positively Staleyesque. The band started slowly, and its material was hit-and-miss, but it closed the set with strong versions of two of its best songs, "Down" and "21."
Sledville falls into the same stylistic chasm as Jamie's Brother, but it was much harder to stomach. Though the band's twin-guitar attack was precise and powerful, the songs were loaded with calculation and short of any audible inspiration. The performance might have been passably bland but for singer Mark Norman, whose frenzied left-arm swinging and spastic facial contortions looked like a bad imitation of John Belushi doing Joe Cocker.
When Kongo Shock reached the stage three hours into the contest, it felt like a much-needed hit of oxygen. Singer Dave Neil opened the show by gently poking fun at the contest scoring system: "We'd like to apologize; Kongo Shock couldn't make it. We're band No. 4, and we're taking their place."
Band No. 4 whipped up its typical ska frenzy, playing with a loose command and a welcome sense of fun. For the first time all night, you sensed that people were dancing because of some irresistible rhythmic imperative, and not because they wanted to make their chosen band look good. When the band smoked through its hyper-skank classic "Bus," victory seemed assured. Someone even shouted from the crowd, "You're the winner!"
All that changed when Satellite hit the stage. The club was so heavily packed with fans of the Tempe pop-rock quartet that Gibson's suddenly felt like the site of a coronation. The band seemed energized by the crashing waves of affection, putting extra fire into ordinary, journeyman-rock tunes like "All Time Low" and "Fastest Car." A gambling man would have bet the house on Satellite walking away with the coveted H.O.R.D.E. prize.
That's what made the eventual announcement all the more shocking: Honey Child was the winner. On a night when victory meant a strong Rock the Vote campaign, Honey Child had done the best job. The results were frustrating to objective attendees, for whom Kongo Shock was clearly the standout act. But the whole contest was frustrating because it so poorly represented the Valley music scene. It doesn't even make sense to rationalize that these acts were chosen based on their H.O.R.D.E. compatibility, because during the last couple of years the festival has shown an increased willingness to expand its horizons with acts like Beck, Ben Folds Five, and Morphine.