The first episode of “The Next Great American Band” is jam-packed. Within two hours, the entire audition phase of the program is begun and finished. Unlike Idol, the producers here aren’t focusing on the freak show. Sure, your assorted oddballs show up here and there, but the trainwrecks aren’t overplayed. Most awesomely, we get a really good look at the bands who will be moving on to the Top 12, which starts next week, along with their accompanying back stories. I’d love to think that Friday night’s well-paced debut episode is a foreshadowing of the way the American Idol auditions will be edited next season. One can only hope.
Here’s the deal THOUSANDS of bands sent in their audition tapes. Anything went, apparently. Although the 60 bands that made the cut were overwhelming white and male–how did that happen? And mostly sing some variation of pop music. So, in the end all those Lithuanian Polka bands, or whatever were for naught…
Despite the conventional casting, this show is pretty entertaining. The overnights were disappointing, TNGAB came in dead last, with a 2.0/4 rating. Ouch. I hope word of mouth helps the show pick up more viewers. Despite some choppy editing, this is a really well-paced, entertaining show.
Dominic Bowden, the host, was recruited from New Zealand Idol. He’s a bit of a non-entity. I prefer the way Ryan Seacrest interacts with the contestants, he connects with the auditioners in a way that seems real, even it it’s not. I keep forgetting about Dominic, until I see him on my screen.
The judges are well cast. Ian “Dicko” Dickinson is the Simonesque judge from Australian Idol. He manages to be snarky and insightful at the same time. And I never felt like I was getting a line of manipulative bull from him. He also, unlike Simon, seems to have a real love, and knowledge of music. Sheila E has the whole female-softie judge down pretty well. She said yes to just about every act. As a talented Latin percussionist and performer, She’s got some musical chops, hopefully she’ll rely on them a little more as the competition progresses. Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls (I own one of their early albums…Shut Up!) doesn’t have trouble saying no and explaining why–he was the tie-breaker in a couple of heartbreaking instances–he just needs to step up the personality a little bit. He’s got the potential to be a smart, thoughtful judge.
The first act, “Shiny Happy People”…no wait….Sizzling Happy Family” has the “We are a band at the end of our rope” backstory. The lead guitarist is 35, and has a family. He realizes that he’s come to a crossroads. It’s time to take care of the family in one way or another. And if he can’t do it with music, he’s gonna have to stick with the day job.
Since there is no age limit for the contestants, these types of stories are way more poignant. A guy in his late 20’s still trying to grind out a living as a musician doesn’t seem as hopeless as someone in their 30’s or 40’s.
Sadly, the band performs a really lame version of the Guess Who’s “No Time Left for You.” The guitar player is pretty good, but the band as a unit has no charisma. They’ve got this gimmick that involves a barbeque and a rubber chicken and…well, yeah, LAME. Back to Cunningham, TN and the fry table for these guys.
The next band shows promise. The 60’s retro band Tres Bien is my favorite band of the night. Not only ’cause, as musicians, they’ve thoroughly absorbed the mid-sixties British Invasion music their parents played while they were growing, up, but they’ve got raw energy, charisma and they write good songs. The original they performed, “Your Graceful Soul” rocked y’all. The drummer looks like a cross between a Cowsill and Ernie Douglas. Heh. They looked so happy to make it to the next round. Yippie!
Next up: 12 year old heavy metal heads, Light Of Doom. Yuck, yuck, yuck. I hate child performers and I hate their fame-whoring parents even more. This just don’t seem right. The band, made up of 12 and 13 year old boys, would give Lou Perlman a heart attack. So sweet and fresh faced. When they start stripping off their shirts during their Iron Maiden cover, I cover my eyes. Sure, the kids can play. In a few years, they might be pretty good. But, right now, they are just a cute novelty act. Dicko got it right, “It’s a bit too cute, and a bit of a gimmick at the moment.” No Sh*t. He says no. Sheila E is all, yes yes yes! Johnny is on the fence, but unfortunately Sheila E convinces him. The famewhoring parents beg and whine from the boat until Johnny says yes. Ugh. The kids make it to the Top 12. I hope they are dispatched with quickly. Dicko is right, the kids should stay in school, and play rock band when they’re older.
The Hatch, are next. They all live together in a loft in New York City. They sing “Use Me” by Bill Withers. There is some good musicianship here. But, besides being real cute, the lead singer isn’t anything special. If they write their own songs, I’d like to hear one. I think these guys coasted by on their looks, but the Top 12 competition will reveal more, I think. Dicko tells the lead singer, Sean, to turn down the hand movements because “your default position is boy band.” Ha. Sheila E asks him to come “real close” so that she can “see his eyes” as she says yes to him. Actually, his default position is “tool”, until he proves otherwise, if you ask me.
Dominic tells the audience that it’s 110 degrees at Lake Las Vegas where the auditions take place. Surely, the producers anticipated the heat. Did they think it would serve as a challenge to the bands? Like making the band too loud, or telling the kids not to forget their words on Idol? TPTB could also schedule bands they favor early in the morning before the sun is too high. Hmmm. Oh well, you know. It’s a dry heat, they say.
The next half hour starts with a montage of terrible bands, giving Dicko a chance to spout off a few one-liners. Of course, it’s all heavily edited–with Dicko acting pissed off and walking off when a polka band shows up. It’s a short seguway to the next act. Big Toe teaches Dicko that he shouldn’t sweat the small stuff.
Big Toe is fronted by an armless dude who plays bass guitar with his feet. He was born that way, and has had a lifetime to make the most of what he’s got. Anything a person might do with their hands, armless guy does with his feet. Including driving a car…and other things, I’m sure. He’s a guy with a fantastic attitude without any self-pity or excuse making. He’s a pretty cool guy overall, and as corny as it may sound, he really is an inspiration. That’s why, when they finally play, it’s too bad their sound is kinda unpolished and ragged. And while arm-less dude is a deft bass player, his singing is unremarkable. Oh well. Dicko prefaces the boot saying that he’s not going to patronize them. They are a fun melodic guitar band, though. I’d go see them in a bar.
The best band of the night, The Clark Brothers, are probably ringers (they have extensive experience, Ashley, the mandolin player, plays fiddle for Carrie Underwood) but who cares. They’re awesome. Not only are they fresh-faced and cute, but they are accomplished musicians who dish up their southern gospel with genuine soul. The brothers, Austin, Adam and Ashley got their start with their huge family (11 kids) as a travelling evangelical tent-revival act. They sing “This Little Light of Mine” playing mandolin, Dobro and acoustic guitar as backup. The instrumental solos are incredible. The singing is powerful. The judges flip. These guys make the Top 12, and I predict they’ll go deep.
Day two begins with a good band that has a dumb gimmick. They’ve got a great sound, write clever songs, but the whole zombie thing does them in. That’s right, they claim to be zombies, with zombie make up and zombie-themed songs. The Zombie Bazooka Patrol suffers from one-hit-wonder-itis. The zombie deal is funny, (best line: “I can melt Johnny Rzeznik’s heart the way he melts mine) but it gets old really fast. It’s no wonder they make it to the next round, but not to the final 12. If this show gets a second season? They should include a Hollywood-type round where we get to see the judges whittle the talent down to 12. Of course, if the ratings don’t improve, it’s all moot.
The lead singer of Dot Dot Dot explains that they’ve been together 5 1/2 months. (In fact, I hear the two women in the band previously played in an all-girl band with Gina Glocksen…) Supposedly, in that time, they’ve become a hot act, playing lots of gigs in the Chicago area. They sing Burt Bacharach’s “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me.” The band’s got a great sound. But the lead singer? Needs to totally dial it back. He was trying WAY to hard to please. Like Dicko said, after awhile, they might “tend to grate a little bit.” To say the least. Nevertheless, Dot Dot Dot lives to see another day…and makes it to the top 12. It took nearly an hour for the first women (and one of them of color) to pass through to the next round. What’s up with that?
The dramatic centerpiece of the show revolves around a band called Northmont, from Dayton, OH. The lead singer explains that he and the lead guitarist (who is a native New Zealander) have little girls at home, and that it’s “make or break time.” Holding a picture of his cute little pig-tailed daughter, the guitarist explains how she waits half-way around the world for him to “make it big” so that she can come home to him. SOB. What’s an Idol-like show without at least one sob story? They perform, and maybe the instrumentals aren’t perfect, but the lead singer has a great voice and presence, and the original song is pretty good. The judges think the singer is good, but the rest of the band, particularly the bass player, are inferior. The judges give them a second chance to go away for a bit and practice, then come back and audition again. Of course, the band begins to fray around the edges and it’s all caught on camera. The rest of the story plays out in the second half.
The Muggs, from Detroit have their own dramatic backstory. The young bass player has a stroke, and his two band members refuse to replace him. He eventually recovers, learns to play a keyboard bass (he doesn’t completely recover the use of his right arm) and the band moves on. Says Tony, the bass player, “It meant everything to me, it gave me a reason to get better.” It took two years, but his fellow Muggs waited for him to recover. And now here they are on TV! The trio have a tight retro-70’s feel. Like some of those late-60s, early 70’s bands, the lead vocals take a back seat to the instrumentals, and whether that flies on television, remains to be seen. The Muggs may have to continue to rely on their backstory to make it in this competition.
Fifi LaRue, lives with his sweet mama in Long Beach by day, sings lead in a lame Kiss rip-off band by night. He describes himself as a “gothic killer clown” and the make-up is a cross between Kiss and Insane Clown Posse. All the theatrics cannot mask the fact that they really, really suck. When the judges reject them, Fifi says, “Kids love this stuff!” Actually, I think their act would probably give kids (and a few adults) nightmares. Funny Moment: “Let me see your hands!” Fifi shouts, and Dicko holds up one hand as if to say, Gah!
Unidentified female band member, sobbing after being rejected: “I just got laughed at by…Johnny Rezeznik.” That might be the quote of the night. Heh.
Day three begins with the big band outfit, Denver and the Mile High Orchestra. The band is fronted by the mild-mannered Denver. It’s as if Richie Cunningham fronted a big band. Dicko tells him that “there’s a touch of the Ned Flanders in you.” Denver has a decent voice, but needs to develop an edge. The big band behind him is also decent enough. The guys make it to the Top 12, but I wonder if their lack of pizazz will sustain them through this competition. Sidenote: AI Season 5’s Mandisa is friends with Denver..
Saddest band of the night: the middle-aged Zolar X. I’m guessing they formed sometime in the early 80’s after hearing the B-52s, and then just kept plugging away all these years–never getting the memo, in say about, 1986 that the futuristic New Wave deal had become passe. Really, somebody should have clued them in. OMG. Somebody is a fan of “My Favorite Martian.” There really are no words. Dicko: Where did you say you came from? Band member: Plutonia. Dicko: That sounded more like the sound of Uranus. Bada boom!
Sixwire, from Tennessee, explains that the band represents “today’s” Nashville. One of the members calls it country with an “edge.” Well, no. Sixwire serves up the kind of formulaic pop/rock nu-country featured on country radio stations these days. For that reason, and the fact that Sixwire is probably one of the tightest and most professional sounding of all the bands that made the top 12, I think these guys are going to go deep in the competition. Sixwire were signed to a major label at one point, so they’ve been there and done that and are looking for another shot.
The classically trained bluegrass band, Cliff Wagner and the Ol’ #7 show the judges they have a sense of humor when they break into a bluegrass version of “Like a Virgin” after Dicko asks them to “Bluegrass up an Abba song.” Not Abba, but close. Not sure how far these guys’ accomplished bluegrass stylings will take them in the competition. But I hope they last awhile. I’m looking forward to their bluegrass version of “Stairway to Heaven.” And believe it or not, such a thing really exists. I may be voting my fingers off for these guys.
Snuck into a montage of bands: the ethereal sounding The Likes of You. They were the only Top 12 band not featured with a full audition. Which is pretty good, considering the fact that American Idol puts so much focus on the bad auditions during the early rounds, sometimes we don’t get significant glimpses of the contestants who actually make the cut to the Top 24. I feel like I know this Top 12 ahead of the actual competition. I like that.
The Next Great
White Male American Band finally features an African American band–or any band with an African American in it–at the 90 minute mark. In fact, most of the women, Hispanics and blacks are squeezed into the last half-hour of the show. The lack of diversity is odd, considering how carefully American Idol is typically cast–careful to include not only black folk, but Hispanics and Asians as well. Franklin Bridge, from Philadelphia, PA play a cool blend of rocked-out funk and soul. The judges are impressed, and Franklin Bridge moves to the next round and eventually the Top 12.
Rocket is NOT a band that happens to be made up of girls, but a “girl band.” Bleh. The women in Rocket talk about trying to bust girl band “stereotypes” (whatever they are) and insist they are out to prove that they can rock as hard as boys. Dicko tells them that he likes what they “represent” irrespective of musicality and that he thinks they are good role models for girls. Condescending much? It bugs me that people still talk this way in the 21st century. Whatever. I’ll keep listening to my Sleater-Kinney and Breeders CDs without thinking much about the fact that they’re female. Anyway, kids, if you are out to prove yourself against the boys, maybe pick a song that has more than three guitar chords in it? I love me some Ramones, but only the Ramones can do the Ramones. Hopefully, once the competition starts, the gender harping stops, and these chicks just play.
It’s got to totally suck for the Latin band Mezcal. They get their one shot at exposure, and Sheila E. steals all their thunder when she jumps on stage, grabs some drum sticks, practically shoves the band’s female percussionist out of the way to play a solo. THEN she tells them afterward she’s not passing them on to the next round, because they are “falling short of musician ship.” Ok, the judges were right, the band plays cookie-cutter Latin without much finesse, (Out of thousands of tapes, this was the best they received from a Latin band?) But still. Burn, baby, burn.
The episode ends with the second audition of Northmont. This time they change it up with a slow, pretty ballad. But, it’s still not enough to keep them in the competition. Johnny tells them that “the song” was cool, but the band should “heavy up” their sound. Like the Goo Goo dolls? WTF? Then, he tells the lead singer he should be in Pantera. (???). Sheila and Dicko like the lead singer, but not the band. Dicko says no, Sheila says yes. And then Johnny, Mr. Heavy himself, says no. Not that it matters. The whole segment feels like the band was used to serve a pre-written story arc. That’s reality TV.
The segment ends as the soaring strains of the Goo Goo Dolls, “Better Days” plays in the background. The guys pack up their gear. There are last glimpses of photos of the little girls who will be disappointed when they hear that their daddies still didn’t make it. The guys talk about giving up music and getting regular jobs. But will they really do that? Will the little bit of television exposure they get tonight spur them on further? Is the chance to perform on TV a good enough reason to keep going? I say yes, it probably is.
All the bands have My Space pages. Unlike the Idol contestants, they haven’t been asked to take them down. You can check out more from each band. Check out the list in comments. Thanks to marco for compiling the list.
The show has got a web presence. Oddly enough, it’s hosted by MSN. Check it out here.