Live Review: Red Bull Soundclash, October 1 @ Crystal Ballroom
When you go to a "battle of the bands," you usually have a pretty good idea what you're in for. A band will play a set. Then another band will play a set. Then another, and so on. And at the end of it all, somebody gets declared a winner. A "battle of the bands" is just a concert with value judgments attached.
The Red Bull Soundclash is less a battle of the bands, and more a musical obstacle course. Two bands compete in various events that stretch the members' creativity and musical abilities, and at the end, yes, somebody gets declared a winner. But if the event at the Crystal Ballroom on Thursday, October 1 is any indication, the winners are actually the audience. The whole thing is a damn good time.
The Crystal Ballroom Soundclash—the first of its kind on the West Coast—featured two of Portland's finest: The Builders and the Butchers and Viva Voce. Each band was set up on its own stage on opposite sides of the Ballroom's floor, with the crowd between them. Each band played three of its original songs as a warm-up before the actual events began.
The Soundclash features four competitions: The Cover, The Take-Over, The Clash and The Joker. The winner of each competition is decided by the volume of audience applause (as measured by a machine in the middle of the room and displayed on various TV screens), and each round is worth a different number of points.
The first round, The Cover, was also the most obvious. The two bands had agreed upon a song beforehand—"Hungry Like The Wolf"—and the two took turns playing it in each band's own style (although, admittedly, both covers sounded more like the original than they did like a Builders and Butchers or Viva Voce song). The second round, The Take-Over, was considerably more novel, and was definitely one of the night's highlights. One band would start one of its original songs, and then, roughly halfway through, would stop playing... and the other band would pick up where the first left off and finish the song. Both bands made the whole thing look easy, with the only hiccup happening when an improperly-miced melodica made it sound like there was a gap between when Viva Voce stopped its second song and when The Builders picked it up.
The third event, The Clash, featured each band transposing its original songs into three different genres—reggae, country and dance music. Viva Voce's fun, Johnny Cash-y version of "We Don't Fuck Around" was definitely a standout, as was The Builders' dance music version of "When It Rains," featuring drummer Ray Rude showing off his electronic side on keyboard (Rude performs chiptunes—music played on video game systems—as Operation Mission, and used to front local chiptune-rock band Konami Defense System).
The final event was The Joker, where each band performed one of its songs with the help of special guests. The Builders and the Butchers chose to perform "In The Branches" with the members of local Americana act The Pancake Breakfast Singers. Viva Voce chose to go another route for its joker, calling up a guest drummer and a tambourine player. I'm afraid I didn't catch the drummer's name, because I was too surprised by the tambourine player—who was, according to the band, Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody. (I was not, unfortunately, able to talk to the apparent Cody and verify her identity.)
The night's winner was pretty easy to predict from the outset: The Builders and the Butchers, with a very vocal fanbase and several years' experience involving crowds in the band's music, took the Cover, Clash and Joker rounds, leaving Viva Voce with only the Take-Over. The Builders were presented with a prize—a giant guitar made out of Red Bull cans—and performed one last song for the finale, accompanied on stage by a magnanimous Viva Voce.