If you haven’t tuned into The Next Great American Band yet, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that TNGAB is just some kind of American Idol Lite. Sure, maybe it has the same cheesy, too-glossy opening sequence, the familiar vote-till-your-fingers-bleed pleas from the host, and the ubiquitous presence of 19 Entertainment hovering above it all. And while it does have all those things, maybe think of it as more of “American Idol Heavy”. Heavier guitars. Weightier critiques. A couple of chubby contestants. And tonight? It’s heavy, man. In the immortal words of the evening’s featured songwriter in his heyday…they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good, and they’ll stone you and then they’ll say good luck. And just like American Idol – everyone takes a turn getting stoned.
Trumpets, trombones, and saxophones, oh my!
Impossibly fresh-faced and shiny-eyed Kiwi host Dominic Bowden introduces TNGAB’s judges – Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznik, former Prince sidekick Sheila E, and the man responsible for grooming the likes of Oasis, Pearl Jam, and Ozzy Osborne, Ian “Dicko” Dickson. Dicko explains that each band will perform two songs – one cover by the “featured artist”, and one original. Tonight’s featured artist is Bob Dylan, and you can almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the twelve vocalists. Now don’t expect me to provide a mini-bio of Dylan for you. If you’re over 40, you already know who he is. If you’re younger, go ask your mom. Or possibly your grandma.
Drawing the short straw and going first tonight is Denver and The Mile High Orchestra, a big-band comprised of 12 guys and a whole lotta brass instruments. They’ve chosen “Freight Train Blues” as their Dylan cover, and the boys, resplendent in red and gray, do a simply splendid job. Denver’s vocals are razor-sharp, and he doesn’t miss a note, while his band is on top of their game. The original, “One Time Show”, continues with their mile-high energy, but I find Denver to be a bit flat vocally. Overall, they’re great, but suffer from the fact that they’re, well, a big-band. John Rzeznik thinks they did a great job, and their presentation is amazing. Sheila concurs that they did an amazing job, but wants Denver to interact with his musicians more. Dicko snorts that it was “the cheeriest blues song ever”, and derides Denver’s fashion sense, advising him to ditch the red pinstripes. Take that advice with a grain of salt, because it’s coming from a stubby Australian wearing a black shirt with white western detailing.
In the booby hatch
The Hatch, this season’s pretty boys, are Sean, Gary, Jesse, and Austin. The guys all live together and jam together in the same apartment. My guess is that pretty or not, they’re all single. Seriously, their living quarters are enough to make a guy who lives in his mom’s basement look good. The Hatch has chosen to cover “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, and although the band is strong and Sean is a competent vocalist, their version is more Huey Lewis and the News than Maroon 5. Their original, “Stretch Out The Time”, is simply puzzling – the music doesn’t seem to fit the band’s pop image, as the guitarist wanders about the stage blasting out heavy blues riffs. The judges don’t seem sure of what to make of it all either – John liked the Dylan song but complained that the original didn’t have a hook, and “you gotta have a hook.” Sheila thought the cover was underplayed, and Dicko berates them for “jamming out too much”. He reminds them that pop groups rely on good melodies, and they must concentrate on “finding” the melody.
Almost knocking it out of the park
Up next are the Bad News Bears of heavy metal, Light of Doom. LOD is Erik, Mitchell, Dylan, Daniel, and Lucas, and these kids have been playing together since they were…well, kids. Really little ones. And you thought it was weird seeing them play together at the age they are now. LOD is going with “All Along The Watchtower”, an admittedly great choice for a metal group. The kiddos pull off a decent version, but this group needs a
pitchersinger. At least, frontman Erik could benefit from some vocal lessons… a pity he doesn’t play guitar as well as sing. “Eye of the Storm” is their original, dedicated to the wildfire victims in San Diego, and it’s good enough to make me suspect that all metal songs are actually written by 12-year-olds. Young Erik is obviously trying hard to emulate Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, and while the boys are again surprisingly good, there’s no question they also have a long road ahead of them. John comments on their potential, telling them they have so much room to grow, while Sheila congratulates them on a fantastic job but admonishes Erik to finish his notes, and for the guitarists to stay in tune. She also bemoans their lack of shirts, and Dicko sends an even stronger message, telling them that while sex sells, they’re too young to sell it and to put some shirts on next time. Ideally with “Chico’s Bail Bonds” stenciled across the back.
We only had a brief glimpse of The Likes of You on the audition show, and seeing as how lead singer Geoff’s main claim to fame is that he opened for Hall & Oates – maybe that’s not a bad thing. TLOY are going with “Blowin’ In The Wind” (someone had to, I suppose), and I hate this version more than I have hated any other cover song in my life. I would rather listen to Kevin Covais sing “MacArthur Park”. Yes, really. Frontman Geoff has an annoying propensity for using his falsetto, which continues into the band’s original, “Love and Gravity”. First of all – Geoff is no Mika, and men singing falsetto must do it very, very well (like Mika) or must NOT do it at all. Ever. Second, the original song has that unfortunate, forgettable mid-‘90’s sound (Spin Doctors, anyone? Jesus Jones?) that we’d all be better off not hearing again. Ever. Ah, but let’s not forget we have a judge that penned “Iris”. John likes TLOY a lot, and thinks they owned the Dylan song. Just as I’m starting to think that John took this stoned theme thing to heart, he tsk-tsks Geoff’s overuse of the falsetto. Sheila also thinks the falsetto is off, and Dicko accuses them of being a sham band that Geoff threw together to advance his own solo career. Geoff quickly protests, admitting that it kind of started out that way but they’re now a functioning, solid unit. Dicko looks unconvinced, and I cross my fingers that America would never vote for a guy who’s proud of the fact he opened for Hall & Oates.
The girls are alright
The ladies of Rocket are Lauren, Roxie, Kelly, Kristen, and Lauren. Lead singer Lauren proclaims that they’re “better than any boys out there”, and aim to prove it with their version of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. Let’s see, what’s good about Rocket? They have a very recognizable sound. They’re cute. The frontperson, Lauren, is like a punky Belinda Carlisle, or possibly, Courtney Love after a hot shower and a week of detox. They play fun, power-pop punk, which did make the Ramones famous, after all. They probably had the biggest challenge with Dylan, and they didn’t do a bad job at all, though they should have left off the rather silly “knock-knock!” backup vocals. The original, “Mean to You”, is energetic and has a good hook. I’m not sure that Rocket is better than all the boys here, but they’re giving them a fairly good run for their money. John likes that they’re really, really tight, but thinks Lauren needs more command of her vocals. Sheila is thrilled, saying the cover was great and that the original should be on the radio right now. Dicko is pleased that the band has tightened up, but also thinks Lauren needs to work on her voice. Would I buy their CD? Nah, but I bet the teen girls surrounding Dominic Bowden in the audience probably would.
Bluegrass – apparently not big in Australia
Cliff and the Old #7 isn’t just a clever name, now. There’s an actual guy named Cliff in it, and they’re all sort of old. Old, and fairly unattractive, which is perfectly OK in a bluegrass band, according to Cliff. It also explains why we don’t see a lot of bluegrass music videos. Cliff and the boys are covering “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, and though I’m not familiar with this song, I think that Dylan would highly approve of this version. The original, “Old Fire”, remains true to the band’s roots – listen, if you like this kind of music, you’ll like the Old #7. You can almost imagine yourself sitting in a rickety old lawnchair, with a cooler of beer beside you, watching these guys on an outdoor stage. It’s good stuff, but it’s probably not the stuff of The Next Great American Band. John likes these guys enough to want to hang out with them, and Sheila thinks they owned the Dylan song. Dicko, however, has no use at all for Cliff, saying he didn’t enjoy the Dylan, and he didn’t feel the “element of spite and sourness” in the original. After that critique, I’m guessing Cliff and the boys felt it, all right.
A hot steaming mug of rock n’ roll
It’s impossible not to love The Muggs, who are Dan, Matt, and Tony. We’re reminded of the group’s friends-to-the-end philosophy, which works wonderfully well for them as they tear into Dylan’s “Meet Me In The Morning”. Frontman Dan pays homage to Dylan’s raspy vocals, though they sound a bit fuzzy, and initially I’m not sure if they’re having technical difficulties or if it’s Dan who’s at fault. “Slow Curve” showcases the band’s ‘70’s heavy-rock sound, and The Muggs get big props from me for managing to avoid being sludgy arena-rockers – likely because they’re really superior musicians. At the judges’ table, they’re practically waving Bic lighters in the air – John claims Dan is now one of his guitar heroes, and Sheila gushes that they’re one of her favorites. Dicko beams and tells Dan he’s a great guitarist – not a great singer, but it doesn’t matter. He advises Dan to get over his lack of vocal talent, and now we know for a fact – this definitely isn’t American Idol.
There are many Clark brothers among the 11 children in their family, but The Clark Brothers we’re growing to know and love are Ashley, Adam, and Austin. The trio has made the inspired choice of “Maggie’s Farm” for their Dylan cover, and do such a superb job it can almost make you forget that Dylan did it first. Not to mention you have to love a man who can fiddle. “Billy the Kid” is the original, and it’s pure American roots music, brilliantly done. I really must get to one of those tent revivals one of these days, if this is the kind of talent they turn out. John loves the “guts” in the Dylan song, and thinks the original has a great hook. Sheila is blown away by the boys’ versatility, and Dicko says that while they are one of the standouts, he can’t understand why they chose to mess with Dylan’s simple melody. The brothers shrug and say they just wanted to do it their way, and seeing as how their way is so damn good, any further critique from Dicko is drowned out by the audience’s catcalls.
Mod suits and mop tops
It’s not just Très Bien, it seems – it’s Très Bien! Michael, Mike, Cody and Ryan are like “American gigolo with instruments”, and I can’t decide if that’s supposed to be some kind of double entendre, or if they’re really just that goofy. One of the boys’ dads is shown shaking his head sadly and noting that the band’s practices have garnered 28 police complaints to date, and yeah, I guess they really ARE that goofy. Their Dylan cover is “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and while they stay true to the original Dylan song, the performance is oddly disconcerting – sort of like watching a colorized episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. “Easy to Love Me”, Très Bien!’s original, makes them sound like a less-clever version of Weezer, which is still better than a lot of young bands out there. John loves their Dylan, and thinks the original is pure ‘60’s Brit-pop. Sheila is more stern, telling the boys to “bring up the musicianship”, and Dicko professes to be enormously fond of the band, but warns them to be wary of falling into kitsch.
Curt, Dwayne, Ray Ray, and Darrell are Franklin Bridge, who, like The Clark Brothers, fine-tuned their sound by playing in the local house of worship. They’ve picked a completely unfamiliar Dylan song, “Tangled Up In Blue”, so I can’t say how well they covered it, but it’s safe to say it’s probably somewhat of a distance from the original. While these guys are stunningly good musicians - they include a smoking hot guitar solo - their cover somehow sounds to be a bit of a mess overall. “Incredible” is their original tune, and this is more like it – the song starts slow but it quickly gets kicked up a notch, and I would very favorably compare this band’s sound to Sly and the Family Stone, with some Earth, Wind and Fire thrown in. John says they’re unbelievable, and compares their Dylan cover to Prince. Sheila loses it, squealing and declaring them the winners. Dicko comments that while their musicianship is incredible, the Dylan song was over-arranged, and tells them to keep it simple next time.
Dot Dot Dot, comprised of three guys and two girls, are all about having fun. Bassist Lisa comments that Adam is like “a party in himself”, and when it comes to performing, Adam is the guy who brings the party. Dot Dot Dot is going with “Like A Rolling Stone”, and this is the best damn party version of this song I’ve ever heard. The fun continues with their original, “Another Stupid Love Song”, which sounds like early U2, but with stupifyingly dumb lyrics. Adam, in spite of his apparent passion for heavy eyeliner and massive quantities of hair gel, is a born performer, and a good frontman can carry a band very, very far (see: Van Halen). John is the most positive of the judges, lauding Adam’s performance, but claiming they “mangled” the Dylan song, and commenting on the lyrical weakness of the original. Sheila is disappointed, while Dicko appears annoyed that the band failed to heed his advice last week to “tone it down”, and calls Adam a “hyperactive emo leprechaun”, which Adam seems to take as a compliment.
Tight as six-pack abs
Sixwire is Andy, Steve, Rob, John, and Chuck, and once they develop some personality, I’ll be more than happy to watch their interview videos. Maybe it’s because we’re on the last fourteen minutes of a two-hour marathon, but these guys are as bland as a slice of white Wonder bread. Hopefully they’ll wake me up with some of that 21st-century country rock they did so well last week. Their Dylan song is “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and it’s country-radio cover drivel, far too close to the original and made annoying by adding some twang. “Good To Be Back” is their own original, and this is far preferable – less twang, more riffing, and Sixwire reminds us that they’re really all about good ol’ Southern-style country rock. John loves them, and thinks they treated Dylan “nicely”, but Sheila is again head-over-heels with enthusiasm, and says she might have to change her mind about the winner. Dicko agrees that they’re fabulous additions to the competition, but hangs a monkey on their back by commenting that they’ll probably be “the housewives’ choice”. Someone should really tell him the politically correct term is “yummy mummy”. Jerk.
Another thing about TNGAB that makes it better than American Idol? No crappy results show! That’s right, the show will be back next Friday, but without the two bands who garner the lowest amount of votes. The ten bands remaining will be covering the work of Elton John & Bernie Taupin. Meet you next week on that timeless flight!
Which bands will be left a complete unknown? With no direction home? Like a rolling stone? PM me your picks.