REVIEW: UOW band comp final

Despite the contracted series of heats, and the entry of just 21 bands this year, the final of the UOW band comp featured arguably the strongest lineup in years; The Maze, Tommy M & The Mastersounds, Vanguard Party, Rocking Horse & The Baby Dolls and Avaine have each made significant waves of their own in recent times, and the judges were always going to have a tough decision in finding a winner.

This reviewer arrived late, and just caught the end of The Maze’s set. An upbeat pop-rock sound, drawing obvious influence from the likes of Maroon 5, early Radiohead and The Living End, the 2010 Mercury Bluescope band comp finalists put in a strong showing to set the tone for the rest of the night.

Seemingly the most difficult thing for Tommy M & The Mastersounds was organising the required human tessellation to fit eight musicians on stage; because they sure made their music look easy. Taking their cues from Reel Big Fish as much as from classic New Orleans-style blues and jazz, the young ensemble (most of whom wouldn’t be old enough to get into the Unibar on their own) powered through a hugely entertaining ska/reggae-tinged set. They were led ably by enthusiastic jack-in-a-box frontman Evan Kerr, who karate-kicked and jived around the stage when not attending to his keyboard duties. A mid-set breakdown, where almost every member scored an extended instrumental solo, was a highlight, with the band showing off performance chops well beyond their young years. Big things ahead for these guys.

Bedecked in paisley shirts and variously outlandish headwear, “Vanguard Party are a band” (or so their Facebook page states). Underpinned by an awesomely cheesy 8-bit synth, the four-piece’s indie-infused new wave sound – combined with their attire – took many by surprise, judging from the curious expressions on many a face. Yet as the crowd got their head around the incongruous combination, it was clear that Vanguard Party had much more than novelty value to offer. Simple hook-driven tunes, full of melody – and that ever-present synth – got feet tapping and heads nodding, with a Mario theme tune medley eliciting a lot of laughs.

Rocking Horse & The Baby Dolls took the night in a new, slower and more considered direction, switching up between smoky blues and high-energy jazzy-rock. The Baby Dolls, their three-strong female backup vocalists, added a surprising depth and power to their sound, laying the foundation for lead vocalist Christie to show off her incredible, powerful, soaring voice. Bass-heavy, Rocking Horse showed off a sound not often heard around the digs of Wollongong, harking back to early rock’n’roll and blues. Hugely polished, with a great stage presence – best shown off by the co-ordinated outfits and dance moves of the Baby Dolls – Rocking Horse added more difficulty to the judge’s final decision.

The last of the competitors, Avaine again added another sonic component to the band comp final.  A metal-influenced pop-punk sound, led by vocalist Jess Patmore, the female-fronted punk sound garners obvious comparisons to the likes of Paramore; screaming guitar and feedback, with tight powerful drumming and axework, the band also threw up hints of A Day To Remember and Four Year Strong. However, the band lacked a real sense of stage presence, barely moving around at all, which was very obvious on the big Unibar stage. The band have lots of potential with the current popularity of this sound; they just need to tighten up around the edges, loosen up on stage, and put on a ‘show’ rather than just a recital of their material.

With the assessable portion of the night over, the judges retreated to make their decision as 2010 champs Sydney Girls Choir took the stage for a showcase set. The husky, bluesy voice of Andy Thomson fronted the tight, rock’n’roll sound of the national uni band comp runners-up; blistering, breakneck indie-infused rock, the set highlight was the one-two punch of ‘LA’ and ‘Mama Told Me.’ With their debut EP set for release in a fortnight, a new film clip and new tour dates on the way, things aren’t slowing down for SGC anytime soon.

After a lush, upbeat and tropical-tinged set from Sydney synthpop group Guineafowl closed out the night, before the judges verdict was delivered. Avaine came in third, Tommy M & The Mastersounds took out second place, while Rocking Horse & The Baby Dolls were crowned 2011 champions, and will now take their place in the state final of the national campus band comp.

It was a night where any of the bands could have gotten through for the win, so high was the quality and so polished was the performance of each act. If nothing else, the final showed us that – far from the pessimistic, doomsday predictions of many local music fans in recent years – the quality of young bands in the Illawarra is pretty incredible. For those still whinging about the closure of the Oxford, and loudly proclaiming that “Tumbleweed are the only good thing about Wollongong music,” pull your head out of the sand; the future of Wollongong music is here, and it’s pretty damn bright. Get with the times.

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