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Decent Exposure: Indie band contest shows off local goods

Unless you don't get out much, you've probably noticed that the Bay Area is overflowing with undiscovered musicians. You see them in bars, clubs, coffee shops, on street corners, and in MUNI and BART stations. Some are talented, some are terrible, and some are crazy, and all regularly attract audiences. With so many musicians performing in this metropolis, how do talented indie artists stand out and get the exposure they want?

X2 Productions, a music promoter dedicated to giving undiscovered talent the platform to gain exposure, has recognized this need and regularly hosts events to give aspiring artists an edge. Via its San Francisco affiliate, II Roxx Productions, X2 hosted an Up-and-Coming Band contest at 12 Galaxies on January 20th. The contest showcased eight local indie groups, was attended by record labels and industry reps, and gave a photo shoot and cover story in Independent Musician Magazine to the winning band, selected by popular vote.

Amazingly, the showcase kicked off on time. I arrived early; the bands were still loading their allowed equipment. X2 Productions required that the artists all use the same equipment to help keep the show on schedule, which made many band members nervous. "Our sound can need a very specific mix of things for some of the stuff we do, so there was concern about what level we would be able to achieve," says Dean Tomihira of Tomihira, "But it worked out great. We were just happy that we got to bring our pedal boards."

The show opened with a solo artist, Tru. The set was simple, just him and his acoustic guitar. His voice was strong and pleasant to listen to, resembling a male Tracy Chapman, both in looks and sound. Travis Magrane followed with a better solo performance. The singer/songwriter had a smooth and controlled folk style and a strong emotive voice with unique tone, reminiscent of David Gray. The chord progressions and lyrics weren't flashy, but catchy, and the occasional harmonica solos added a down-home, yet charming touch.

Tomihira, self-described shoe gazer/space rock/whatever band, hit the stage next. Artsy and a little bit 80's, this band is definitely influenced by The Cure. The lead singer/guitarist and band founder, Dean Tomihira, could be Robert Smith's long-lost Asian cousin. Their music was popular among the crowd, even with those who came to see other bands. "I came to see Miles End, but I enjoyed Tomihira," says Karli Maeda from Walnut Creek, CA. "They have a cool, mellow sound that would be perfect in a lounge. I could simply listen to them sing about absolutely nothing all night." The second song, "Pillbox" was peppy and likable, despite its heavy subject matter (drugs and addiction). Dean Tomihira and Markkus Rovivo (drums) were lively and really worked their instruments. Other band members, however, resembled mannequins in a music store display window.

In the spirit of Flea or Adrian Young (No Doubt), the fourth band, Urine Love, featured a little nudity. Before strapping on his guitar, the bassist shed his shirt. The naked-except-for-suspenders look is tough to pull off, and it would be more titillating if his body rocked as hard as the band, but his confident, I-don't-give-a-shit attitude was refreshing. The band kicked off their high-energy hard core/punk set by asking everyone to move towards the stage, the lead singer said that "he would have more fun if everyone got a bit closer" and he was right, the closer people got, the more they rocked out. "No Tagbacks" was their best song because the hard and fast tempo slowed momentarily and this interlude between calm and storm complimented their musical abilities.

The winning band, Miles End, commanded the stage from the start and moved with comfort, despite a couple of blips. The drums were a tad fast in places, and the sound quality/balance was initially off, particularly with the lead guitar, but this might have been more of an engineering/equipment problem because it smoothed out within a few minutes. Josh Ruthnick's vocals were strong and clear, he seemed to let loose and you could really hear the depth and complexity in his baritone. Ladies, if his sexy voice doesn't move you, his good looks will! Jacob Rosenberg provided modest back-up vocals, and shined with his skilled and interactive bass playing (no stoic Christ-like poses here, he works the stage).

Like the other groups, their stage time was short, just over 20 minutes. The set included two notable songs, "Tickets Out," which showed off Josh Johnson's impressive tribal-like drumming style, and the popular "Sarah's Song," inspired by Rosenberg's ex-girlfriend. Ranging from mellow-tempoed to high-energy rock, "Sarah's Song" captures all their energy and talent. Ruthnick's deep, emotive eyes pierce right through you, Rosenberg and Johnson reinforce it with their feral-tinged rhythms. Although slack in places, Miles End makes up for it with individuality, charisma, and an overall impressive performance. "I used to [talent] scout," says Lisa Edwards from San Francisco, "so when I watch a band, I view them individually and then gauge them as a whole. Miles End played well together."

Lower Case A had a tough act to follow. They matched Miles End in dynamics and stage presence, but the music was loud and coarse in comparison. If you like scream-your-lungs-out type vocals, then this is the band for you. Lower Case A brought in a good-sized crowd; everyone was standing and rocking out near the stage. Though rough around the edges, this band is young (literally, several are under or barely 21) and has time and potential to grow…if the screaming doesn't exterminate any hint of music.

Lick was up next. This band is attractive because they have a female singer and her performance was highly emotional and involved, making them fun to watch and listen to. Her dramatic singing hinges on narcissism and her facial expressions, gestures, and body language are so intriguing that you almost forget about the rest of the band. What band?

X2 Productions unfortunately saved the worst for last. While all the other bands had something to offer, New Type didn't and should have been left off the bill. They definitely play a "new type" of music, one that ordinary or undrugged listeners can't appreciate. Their sound is unique - you definitely can't label them as just another indie rock band - but it's more idiosyncratic noise than music. I think that they recognize their shortcomings, and try to make up for it with creativity and eye candy. New Type featured a female electric saw player, which briefly piqued my curiosity, until it became apparent that the funny instrument only added to the din, in this case, weird, whales-in-heat like sounds. They also had a tambourine player, and though she was cute, she barely shook the instrument or her thang. Mediocre eye candy. The songs were endless and pretty much blended into one big trippy barrage of sound that could have a cool Doors or Pink Floyd like appeal, if only there was clarity amongst the swirls.

All in all, the X2 Productions Up-and-Coming Band contest was a hit. They hosted some diverse and promising bands, including frontrunner Miles End. Formed in September 2003, Miles End made their Bay Area debut at the fantastically kitschy Stork Club in Oakland in March 2004. Since then, they have built a solid reputation and have played and packed venues all over the Bay Area and Northern California. Miles End and other talented local bands are still cultivating their art, but it's awesome and inspiring to see the support that the Bay Area has to offer those who have their roots here.

-Mona Buehler

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