True to form, this year's Isthmus Band to Band Combat yielded an exciting night of local music. The musicianship and the variety were impressive.
The winner of the contest, which went down Thursday night at the Majestic Theatre, was Sleeping in the Stereo. The high schoolers' lively, nervous pop-rock bested the punkish churn of the media., the indie brooding of Crane Your Swan Neck and the skillful jam stylings of the Lucas Cates Band. Audience members voted to pick the winner.
The four-act lineup was chosen by TheDailyPage.com readers, who in online voting winnowed down a field of 27 bands. The grand prize: 20 hours of recording time at Madison's Blast House Studios.
Sleeping in the Stereo started things off with a set of tight, up-tempo tunes like "Nights, Opportunities." The group's great strength was lead singer Frankie Pobar Lay, the evening's most effective vocalist. His delivery was forceful and confident, and he flailed and kicked as a front man should. Guitarists Paul Arbaje and Henry Stoehr traded dexterous leads.
Next was the media., whose tough rock sound and coed vocal attack invited comparisons to X. Daniel Ross, Nick Stein and Brandon Blaschka played a driving set of original songs like "Complicated," while at the center of the stage a young woman -- unidentified in the band's promotional materials -- sang backup vocals, not always tunefully. She also danced, twirled and took photographs of the audience.
Indie stalwarts Crane Your Swan Neck played the evening's most thought-provoking set, a collection of tunes memorable for their dramatic shifts in rhythm and dynamics. Multi-instrumentalism was a theme. Guitarist and singer Randall Luecke, he of the ironic mustache, glasses and mullet haircut, switched between electric and acoustic axes; bassist Kenny Monroe also played toy piano and bells; and Patrick Reinholz had turns on both cello and accordion. One of the most striking numbers was "You're a Lighthouse," which saw Monroe beating a floor tom while pounding the stage with a long jingle stick. The spectacle made the crowd roar. I do wish Luecke's vocals had been easier to make out.
Closing out the program was the the Lucas Cates Band, whose relaxed jam music is a first cousin of the Dave Matthews Band's. Cates' set featured what was by far the evening's most technically remarkable playing. Bassist Mark Noxon and guitarist/violinist Kenny Leiser are virtuosos, and watching them trade riffs was thrilling. Singing and strumming an acoustic guitar, front man Cates kicked off his band's segment with the pointedly political, reggae-inflected "Enemy Lines," and later the group played the wittily sensual "Cougarville."
The vote was close, but I suspected all along that Sleeping in the Stereo would clinch. Almost from the moment the band started playing, its energetic, youthful fans mobbed the width of the big Majestic stage. Sleeping in the Stereo proved that what is true of politics also is true of competitive live music: The message matters, but so does the get-out-the-vote effort.