This weekend, I was able to see the infamous Sound Off! competition at the Experience Music Project for the first time ever. Three weekends of semifinals culminate in one final music battle for the big prize including recording time, gear, radio airplay, high profile performances and media attention, among others. It’s a well-known but sparsely-attended music competition only open to artists under 21 years of age performing original work. There was some incredible music played on February 9 at the first semifinal round, but I’ll get to that in a minute. I mentioned it was sparsely-attended, but really what I meant is that attendance by the bar crowd is negligible; in fact, festival attendance is about 90% underage fans. That might not seem like a big deal, but there’s a lot to be frustrated about in that statement. Why wouldn’t the music community head out to a decent venue like the EMP, pay a cheap fee at the door, and see the young talent this city has to offer?
The youth music movement is one of the best things about Seattle — a city which does so much more than almost any other in the country for young people who want to play and listen to music. We have the Vera Project, Old Redmond Firehouse, and the DIY music scene, just to name a few. Competitions like Sound Off! give youth an opportunity to see and take part in great shows without feeling like they’re settling for the few, possibly crappy, shows they’re given access to.
I was really excited to spend my Saturday night watching four groups of young artists fight for their chance at local stardom. I got there a little early and witnessed the nervous anticipation and anxiety that comes when hard work and talent are about to be put to the test. Dave B, a hip hop artist with a backing band of drums, DJ, and keyboards started out the night. I was really impressed — he had quite a stage presence and drew the crowd into his sound. There are times when hip hop artists just lose me and I start drifting off and thinking of other things despite the speakers blasting their music directly at me. Charm and interaction with the audience makes all the difference, and Dave B had both in spades.
Unfortunately the next two bands totally fell flat. I was so excited to see Shogun Barbie; the name alone had me reeling with anticipation. Immediately the lead singer/guitarist started in with the rock jumps. I was into it and watched intently. The female singer was wearing serious booty shorts (her cheeks were falling out the bottom) which I’m sure was a ploy to get interest more than a cute outfit that helped her feel comfy on stage. It felt wrong, knowing the band was underage… (later I found out she was a temp because their normal singer is over 21). Although the scissor kicks and jumps were cool at first, they kept on coming and lost their luster halfway through the set. The music was mediocre, but maybe that’s because of the ass-exposing fill-in singer. I have a feeling with some more work they might have something, but right now it just isn’t working for me.
As for Mister Mista, I was seriously impressed by their guitar work. It was so amazing watching their rhythm guitarist — obviously a metal-head — thrash the strings and fling his long hair back and forth throughout the entire set. Serious talent there. The lead guitarist /singer is also a great musician but there was a weird dynamic between them which failed to make the group feel cohesive. It felt like the lead guitarist was normally a solo act who had gathered a few musicians the day before the competition and said “let’s do this.” Although they were competent artists in their own rights, they didn’t mesh as a band.
Last but absolutely not least was The Fame Riot. This glammed up pair of brothers, along with two (practically invisible) guys playing bass and drums knocked the crowd on their asses. The entire floor jumped in time as the frontmen slunk across the stage with Bowie-esque swagger in super tight-fitting pants, sequined shirts (layered on top of more sequined shirts), and feathered hair as far as the eye could see. The music was fun and catchy, the lyrics were comprehensible and repeatable and none of us wanted their show to end. That 30 minute set wasn’t nearly enough. The rest of the room agreed with me because they won the audience favorite award as well as the official competition (judged by several music-community mainstays) for the evening. As I cracked a huge smile and danced my butt off, I had one of those crystallizing moments when you just know you’re seeing the future of Seattle music. If the band continues to play the right all-ages shows, Seattle will know their name within a year. This city is dying to dance and The Fame Riot brings booty-shakin’ music to the masses.
I highly recommend you get to at least one of the next two weekends of competition or, even better, hit up the finals on March 2nd. Grab tickets for the other two semifinal weekends and the finals on March 2nd over at EMP’s site.