The Battle of the Boroughs is a smaller New York City music competition, pitting new musicians of all different styles against one another in competitions separated by the city's boroughs. This review covers the 2014 Manhattan Borough competition as seen through the live webcast. The winner is decided by audience votes, and is announced on 2/17, ten days after the concert.
Before I begin, I don't want any of these new artists to see this and get demoralized, as low a chance as there is of that happening. But, in the unlikely event of them finding this isolated review, I would just like to say this:
Don't listen to the critics if they didn't like you. They'll tear you apart for fun, but don't let them shut you down. Keep creating. If you stop, they win. The biggest middle finger you can give to a bad review is to be successful anyway.
This is a harsh review focused on helping readers find new music, as well as serving as a guide to the show as it ran in general. From the top of the night:
The emcee is not doing well to open the show. Whenever I have had to emcee, my philosophy has been "get the crowd excited so the performers can ride the inertia," not "put the crowd to sleep so the opening act has an even harder time with it." But hey, whatever makes him happy.
The first act, Ayoinmotion, is made up of (from what I can see) four very talented people and one man shouting repeatedly. It starts off with a very poetic introduction (sounding much like an origin story from an overexcited comic book) before breaking into a rap and soul mix. The soul half is very nice - two great singers (though they sound a little too similar for my taste), a pianist who at the very least is playing well, and a drummer who could not look less interested in being there come together to make a unique sound. The rap piece is my definition of everything wrong with the genre: it's a man screaming the same thing multiple times, overpowering the singers with a cliched message (She's leaving! She's leaving! Now she's gone!). There is a good amount of energy from this performance, however - though unfortunately the crowd did not support it (one of the more notable aspects of the performance is when only one Asian woman in the front row put her hands up when told to do so).
The second act is made up of a pianist, bongo drummer, bassist, singer, and a man who looks to be twenty or so years older than the rest of the band playing an instrument that looks like someone shoved a harp into a gourd. The guide lists them as "Kavita Shah: 'Visions'", and (while I'm not entirely sure if Kavita is the band or just the singer) I can understand where the vision part of the name comes from: the entire performance resembles a soulful documentation of an acid trip. The singer is somewhat off-key to begin the song, but it eventually becomes very nice lounge music; something to listen to on Pandora, if not to go see in concert.
The next woman is a one-singer, one-piano act. She sounds like Adele with more of a warble until she really gets going. Her name is Lela Sophia, and I'm so glad she came onstage. While she does look somewhat uncomfortable - her hands are in the typical "performance posture", she's swaying not to the music but more to not stand still - you can tell that she is controlling the house. She's not exactly pitch perfect, but I can appreciate her passion. The audience forgets to clap for a minute after she finishes, which if I'm right is very high praise - they were hanging on her performance, waiting for her to continue.
There's a man in front of the commentators who keeps leading to talk to the person behind him. He's yet to discover the unique ability humans have to turn around not by bending backwards but instead by turning the position of their legs. I find him very distracting, like watching an owl - or a devil - spin its head.
The emcee is doing well as an interviewer. I guess that's most of what he does, so not having that obnoxious energy you need to get a crowd ready might not be such a drawback.
Preachermann and The Revival come onstage, a band from Harlem. I'm worried, as they seem to be a gospel choir - mostly because of the woman (I think) dressed in preacher's robes screaming into a microphone. The camera angle changes and wait, I was wrong, that is most certainly a man. Would not have guessed.
This band seems to be made of roughly eighty people of various ages playing various instruments. The only rule to be a band member is that you must have stupid looking hair. There is a guitarist, bongo drummer, violinist, three singers, a pianist, what I believe to be another guitarist hiding behind Preachermann, and oh my god there is a another guitarist hiding behind that guitarist. They are singing a type of R&B, gospel, screamy music. There's almost no way to describe it other than saying that everything screeches. It's like listening to a Kurt Cobain-Gwen Stefani-tango(?) fusion. This is another song with only one lyric. However, they do have a large amount of energy to make up for it. I'd still rather be listening to the drug trip.
MARTiNA is up next - I hate that stylization - and she is the first musician of the night to play an instrument herself. From the start she manages to not hit a single note, instead wheezing and scraping over a love song melody while playing chords on the piano. She has the "withering alt rock voice", but it isn't working for her. Though the piano does eventually get better, her voice doesn't. She sounds like she's going for a First Aid Kit type sound, but her voice is a bit too thin for that. The song also has a tendency to jump around - it goes from chords to slamming keys back to chord and then to a concerto style without transitions - and is the weakest performance so far.
Up next is the Matt Panayides Group, a four person band consisting of a drummer, bassist, saxophonist (which does not sound like it should be a word) and a bassist in the guitar use of the word. I should probably have made that clear - all the other bassists have been playing stand up basses, not "haha fooled you this isn't an electric guitar" basses. The group is playing a chaotic sort of jazz, which is interesting - while I could appreciate it if an improv group sounded like this, it sounds to me like everyone other than the drummer is attempting to hog the spotlight.
Now Joe Stone takes the stage. He's playing a distinctly metal version of country music, which means that I have officially seen every type of music tonight. The actual instrumentation sounds great, but dear lord Joe Stone's voice is terrifying. He sounds a lot like the voice you'd put on for the villain of a fairy tale, an even more guttural version of Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. I think this was the biggest let down of the night - the act had such promise when they started, then the vocals hit and turned the song into a terrifying carnival ditty. I'm waiting for the commentators to talk about how "original" it is.
Here comes the "stock compliments" commentator roll call: the music represents the "American tradition", has such "energy", resembles "Johnny Cash" (which actually is an apt comparison, if Cash had eaten rocks), and...
JACKPOT! uses "A voice which is very, very much your own."
Stone cites Beethoven, Alice Cooper, Tom Waits, and Johnny Cash as his influences. That actually makes sense. As Stone rambles something about blues music and... black forests(? I lost him there), the emcee could not look less comfortable. There seems to be as much distance as the camera will allow between the two men for the end of the interview.
We're more than halfway through now (Seven acts have performed, twelve are scheduled) and we're taking a ten minute break. I'm wondering how many in the audience will be coming back after this intermission.
The stream, at least, is playing a music video of last year's winners. Alongside an obvious lack of knowledge what that "Live" tag in the corner is supposed to mean (it's left up for the entire video), this intermission demonstrates that there really isn't an average style of performance for this competition. The three brothers featured in the video are angrily playing string instruments while singing in Spanish something about "the one I want to kiss" (I'll admit I wasn't listening enough to pick up the lyrics). The video jumps between footage of them shaking their instruments around while singing and something that looks like a revolt near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I still don't get it.
The other winners of last year's competition (I officially do not understand how this contest works) appear to be a five piece band, featuring two guitarists, a bass guitarist, a drummer, and a squeaky violinist. It works though - they're singing something that could be called vaguely goth rock. Also, more than two thirds of the way through the performance the pianist is shown on camera for the first time. The most memorable aspect of their performance was when the lead singer shouted "One more time!" and then proceeded to not repeat a single part of the song.
But wait, somehow there are even more winners. This third act consists of a female singer backed up by a drummer, guitarist, bassist, pianist, and a keyboard player who is mouthing the lyrics and over emoting with his facial expressions while not having a microphone. These guys are very, very talented, and I wish that I knew who they were. Their music is a slower alt-pop, with a few chaotic elements to it as well. I went hunting, and these guys are The Dirty Gems, who I am now a fan of. I'd like to see them perform on a stage that could fit all of them, as the singer keeps going to move before realizing that she's penned in by instruments.
After looking up information on the competition, I found that the "winners" were the actual winners, the Youtube choice winners, and then the runner-ups from last year's competition.
And then we're back with TriBeCaStan, the most confusing band yet. It looks like a big band-style group of people dressed in outdated Middle Eastern stereotypes, and no member is under sixty. For all that, their music is legitimately entertaining - it's an instrumental style that sounds a lot like modernized 50's tunes influenced both by the Middle East and swing music, and is worth checking out. It's like a more intricate version of a Super Mario soundtrack. They describe themselves as "World Music/Jazz/Americana", which sounds to me like three fundamentally opposed genres, but they make it work for them. Also, one man is conducting the group while playing both the sitar and the harmonica, which wins the originality prize from me.
The next act - Julie Hill and the Element Ensemble - is self-described as being "chamber pop", which sounds a lot like music to poop in. Unfortunately, it seems that it's just a string quintet with a singer. Now their definition of pop is very different from mine, as the singer sounds much more theatrical than pop. However, that's really my only complaint: the group overall is very talented, and while I may not be the biggest fan of the style I can appreciate it. The cameraman seems to be oddly attracted to the cellist, as we keep getting "treated to" dynamic shots pointed straight up his legs.
A different man in front of the commentators is blowing kisses at the stage. I am very much hoping he knows people in the band.
Okay, before I start in on the next act, full disclosure time. This band is the reason I was watching this concert in the first place. 5J Barrow is a folk/indie/rock five piece band, with a keyboard player, violin player, drummer, an electric bass player, and two lead singers - one female, one male, who also plays an acoustic guitar. The music is mostly fast paced but dips down into slower moments before it hits again, and - even accounting my obvious bias - this band is one of the most energetic of the night, which just make them even more enjoyable to watch. The male singer is jumping around the stage by the end of the performance. People in the audience are screaming.
Now we have Jeremiah Birnbaum and Friends, who are very, very classic country. He describes himself as being a rock musician, which I can see - he has a low-tech Aerosmith type feeling to him, something that reminds me of ACDC or other similar bands. The big difference though is that his music is very simple - it doesn't have the overpowering aspect most rock music does, and he seems reluctant to let out any hard rock shouts. He's talented, though. He's someone to look out for.
The commentators are saying they hear a lot of southern blues in him, which I understand. People in the crowd are starting to leave, which I don't understand as much - there is one performance left, by my count.
I was right. The closing act is Sun Looks Down, a dream-pop and psychedelic indie rock band that would not look out of place at a high school talent show. This collection of vaguely gothic hipsters have a very soft feel to them. The singer warbles a bit too much for my taste, but has a beautiful, clear voice to make up for it. The backing music, however, doesn't get the same forgiveness: the bland, repetitive music actually gave me a throbbing headache, and I could finally fully understand those who decided to leave early. For the first time of the night the commentators were anything other than overly positive. It's okay though - the singer looks as though she doesn't entirely know where she is.
At the end of the show, my decisions on the bands work out as they're listed below. Each is linked to their own website, and each individual list is not organized.
GO LISTEN TO THESE BANDS:
Léla Sophia (Indie/Pop)
TriBeCaStan (World Music/Jazz/Americana)
5j Barrow (Folk, Indie, Rock)
Jeremiah Birnbaum (Rock)
I'M RESERVING JUDGEMENT ON:
Julie Hill and Element Ensemble (Chamber Pop)
Kavita Shah: "Visions" (World Music)
Matt Panayides Group (Jazz)
I'M NOT A FAN OF:
Joe Stone (Country/Blues)
Preachermann and The Revival (Atomic Soul)
MARTiNA (Singer Songwriter)
AYoinmotion (Hip Hop)
Sun Looks Down (Dream-Pop and Psychedelic Indie Rock)
If you're interested, you may still be able to find the concert here.