spitfire 07 rock band 248.88.
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It was an opening line that did not bode well. "You picked an interesting night. Almost all the entries are metal," said Bryan Singer, greeting me at the bar of the Barby club in Tel Aviv Sunday night.
The 40-year-old Singer was referring to the 16 musical acts that were set to perform two songs apiece in the hopes of going on to the Israel finals of the Global Battle of the Bands Challenge. Singer, the head of Blue Sun Records, along with promoter Carmi Wurtman and Barby owner Shaul Mizrahi, organized Israel's participation in the event for the first time.
Over a dozen qualifying heats have taken place in October and November throughout the country, with scores of Israeli bands vying to head to the finals set to take place next Wednesday. The Israeli champion then goes on to the world finals in London on December 13 to compete against finalists from 36 other countries, with the winner receiving an artist development package worth $100,000.
Along with Sderot-based musician and producer Avi Vaknin, and Ziv Goland, a musical arranger for Dana International, I was asked to be one of the three judges for the event. However, unlike the high-profile American Idol model of in-your-face judging, we were allotted comfortable back-of-the-room tables and a scorecard to rate the entries from 1-20 and to provide written constructive criticism.
Band battles have taken place for as long as there have been rock groups. Even in the mid-1960s, local high school bands would perform against each other at sock hops and on TV talent shows. One of the highlights of my college education in the late 1970s in Boston was attending the annual Rock & Roll Rumble held at the venerable punk club The Rat, where young hopefuls would wield "guitars like switchblades" in order to lay claim to the title of Beantown's best band.
TURNS OUT that not much has changed in 30 years. Despite the digital age of downloads and the gradual disappearance of CDs, the fading on the radio of guitar-based rock 'n' roll in favor of studio wizardry hip hop, pop and dance music - and music in general receding as a number one priority among the social network-crazed youth culture - there's still a lot of guitar slingers out there - of all ages.
The Barby was swarming with a mostly rambunctious teen audience - many of them bused in from Modi'in, whence a good number of the competing acts hailed. The high school-aged entries, which made up more than a majority of the 16 contestants, stood in contrast to the half-dozen or so 'older' bands of adults, including one bass player who was even older than me, and a singer-songwriter, Yasmine Ariel, who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy.
According to Singer, amateur and professional musicians were eligible to sign up for the Challenge, with the only requirements being that 'bands' consist of two to eight members, that the music be performed live with no playbacks, and that the songs are original compositions and not cover versions.
As the crowd and the band members milled around before the start of the competition, I was reminded of the classic 1988 song by The Replacements - "Talent Show" - about just this kind of event, with its revealing lines, "Biggest thing in my life, I guessâ€¦ that's why we're nervous wrecksâ€¦ yeah, we go on next."
Regretting the fact that I had neglected to bring ear plugs, I took my seat, ready to face Singer's prognosis of a head-banging evening. And indeed, there were a good number of acts - like Rockweiler (guess their genre) and Behind the Sun, that looked and sounded like they learned everything about music in the back seat of Wayne and Garth's car in Wayne's World. Long hair flying in circular motions to the thunderous beats, they were parodies of a genre invented to be a parody. Yet, there was something fresh and innocent about it nonetheless, as if despite the years of watching music videos and playing RockBand to get their moves just right, these kids were feeling music's primal power and creating their own magic, no matter how derivative.
A big revelation for me was how musically tight and well-rehearsed every band was - this was no 'hey, let's enter the competition and write a song' operation. For them, it was in fact the biggest thing in their lives, and they played with a drive and determination that was truly admirable.
WHILE THE LINEUP was male-dominant, women were represented by two high school bands featuring female singers of the Pat Benatar variety, a third with an incredible 16-year-old female lead guitarist, and the aforementioned Yasmine.
Particularly eye-opening were the school-age musicians, who must have been playing since they were kids and waiting for this day. It was a little sad that they've had to latch on to the music that their parents grew up with and many of their moves and riffs are mechanical regurgitations, but it was uplifting to see that another generation has caught the rock 'n' roll bug.
When each band played - some sang in English and some in Hebrew - its fans stormed to the front of the stage holding signs, pogo dancing and moshing in a show of solidarity. The audience also received scorecards, and like on American Idol, it was their vote, not the judges', which ultimately determined the winner.
My top pick was a young four-piece band called Hageveret Harishona, who performed sparkling guitar power pop with precision three-part harmonies - my kind of music. But chosen by the majority and headed to the finals on Wednesday is Spitfire 07, one of the female-led Modi'in high school bands. They were a "great for a high school band" entry, and I gave them high marks for their spunky, arena rock performance and stage presence, while citing their lack of originality.
But they were unsurprisingly the audience favorites, with singer Meit Botton, dressed in Joan Jett black and reaching all the vocal shredding high notes, darting around the stage in various 'rock chick' poses.
While it's unlikely they'll be headed to London for the international finals, you can be sure the members of Spitfire 07 will keep their victory on Sunday night close to them for the rest of their lives. And the next time there's a battle of the bands competition, I'd bet that almost every act that performed will be signing up again. Because, like The Replacements sing at the end of "Talent Show," "it's too late to stop now, here we go."