Creative chemistry is a mysterious, unpredictable force. When you take a broad view of the history of music, you’ll see a history of happy accidents and fortuitous combinations.
How different would our cultural history be if Pete Best had stayed in The Beatles? Would Coltrane’s A Love Supreme be such a stone-cold classic if you put somebody other than Elvin Jones behind that kit? What would coked-up tarot readers dance to if Buckingham and Nicks didn’t join Fleetwood Mac? Are the Pixies capable of making music that doesn’t definitively suck ass without Kim Deal in their lineup? Why is this random assembly of people capable of making magic that a different group of people with similar talents cannot?
These are the questions I pondered in between sets and cocktails at the seventh annual Phoenix Rock Lottery at Crescent Ballroom on Saturday, January 11. The name of the event doesn’t quite capture its real appeal. It would be more accurate to call it a live mad science experiment.
The 25 musicians each specialize in a different genre. What happens when you bundle them together into five new bands (randomly assembled via the time-honored name-in-a-hat lottery system) and have less than a day to write three original songs and learn a cover? It could be magical. It could be miserable. Saturday's event had a little bit of both, to some degree.
Hosted by Alt AZ 93.3’s morning DJ Mo!, things kicked off with the blue-haired MC introducing the first act of the night: The Stems.LCJA-98EC28 Consisting of Jordane Raub (Cheap Hotels), Scott Johnson (Gin Blossoms), Tyler Matock (Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold), Aislinn Ritchie (Dovi), and Jacob Unterreiner (Brother Teresa), The Stems had a bit of a '90s vibe on their first song — a Temple of the Dog/Soul Asylum style ballad crooned by Tyler Matock, dressed in a rhinestone shirt and bolo tie.
The group’s sound was a little discordant, but they tightened up considerably over the next few songs, with the '60s garage/surf-pop of “Starry Eyes” (no relation to the Roky Erickson song) and a cover of the Pixies “Where Is My Mind?” They closed with a blues bar rock song called “What Is It Called Again?” that sounded like two different bands trying to play a Cramps song at the same time.
Credit where credit is due: “The less I have to do, the better” is a pretty great hook to sing along to.
Before The Scratchers took the stage, Mo introduced organizers from Rosie’s House, a nonprofit organization committed to providing music education for children (and who were receiving the proceeds from the evening’s show to help further their worthy cause).
Mo introduced The Scratchers with a joke about how the band admitted they hadn’t finished writing all the lyrics to some of their songs. Taking the stage, The Scratchers’ singer playfully admonished Mo: “That’s true, but you didn’t have to do me like that.” The Scratchers were Etti Bowen (Harper and the Moths), Brea Burns (Brea Burns & The Boleros), Ark Calkins (Like Diamonds/Gabi Jr/Sunroom), Saydi Driggers (Whstle), and John-Josiah Hernandez (Herbert Walker/Pro Teens).
You couldn’t tell, though, from their playing that their songs were unfinished. The Scratchers had strong chemistry, playing a set of chilled-out jams that almost sounded like what Dave Matthews would make if he cut a noir record. But it wasn’t all smoky head-nodding music. They did a rip-roaring cover of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” that got folks in the crowd pogoing.
The third group called themselves Nickelback. The non-Canadian version of the band consisted of Nate Vanderpol (Viper Club), Joe Allie (Audrey Heartburn/Brother Teresa), Brian Chartrand (The Sweet Remains), Trevor Hedges (Sundressed), and Ryan Weddle (Katastro).
Their set got off to a pretty rocky start, but they started to find their footing in their second tune, as they played some funky, Herbie Hancock-esque funk music. Their cover of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” was serviceable, like most of their set as a whole. They sounded like four different bands, not one. Each song felt like an exploration of somebody else’s genre and talents as opposed to an attempt at fusing all their styles together into something new.
Buddy System’s set was hands-down the best set of the night. The highest compliment I could pay them was that they were the only band that night who sounded completely cohesive and whole. They sounded like a group that could continue to exist outside the 24-hour confines of the Rock Lottery.
Consisting of Israel Reyes (Rebecca De La Torre), Matt Aldawood (Troubled Minds), Tatiana Crespo (Las Chollas Peligrosas), Larry Gast III (Jared & The Mill), and Jeff Jones (Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra), Buddy System played an honest-to-God interconnected suite of songs. With callbacks! And recurring themes! And flute solos! They had flutes, accordions, and sax sounds to augment their guitars and drums. Instead of stopping between each number, all the songs flowed together, giving their set a stream-of-consciousness feel. They even did two covers — playing a brief bit of the Star Wars Imperial March before segueing into “The Girl From Ipanema.”
As chemistry experiments go, Buddy System was a smashing success.
Almost as strong in the chemistry department were the last act of the night, Stripper Name. Featuring Meghan Herring (Doll Skin), Janel Blanco (The Maya Spectra), Matt Klassen (Coyote Tango), Molly Mashal (Good Boy Daisy), and Torri Ross (Sad Dance Party), they had a propulsive and hard-edged sound. They were dancey but had a punk energy. They reminded me of The Rapture at times (or a less obnoxious Red Hot Chili Peppers). They also embraced ambitious song structures, doing an elaborate rock opera as one of their numbers. And while there were many fun covers played at this year’s Rock Lottery, none of them could hold a candle to Stripper Name’s “Dancing Queen.” Their musical chemistry was powerful enough to do those glorious Swedes justice.
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Last Night: The 2020 Phoenix Rock Lottery at Crescent Ballroom
The Crowd: A pretty big crowd assembled at the Crescent last night. A veritable who’s-who of concert promoters, Saturday night thrill-seekers, and band members cheering on the lucky/unlucky souls onstage who got drawn for the lottery.
Overheard: “It’s gonna be 'Wonderwall.' It’s gotta be 'Wonderwall.'" — the people I sat in front of kept waiting for Oasis to be one of the cover choices, but their "Wonderwall" dreams got stonewalled.
Random Notebook Dump: According to Stripper Name’s “first pet name + street you lived on” stripper name formula, my stage name would be Umba Larkspur. Feels like more of a minor Harry Potter character name than somebody you’d find at a Magic Mike revue or working the late night shift at Bandaids, but what can you do? Hufflepuffs gotta get that bread, too.