If you’ve been following me on Facebook recently, you’ve been bombarded with pictures, videos and various calls to action. My favorite cover band, Puddin’ Head competed in “The One” cover band competition at Bourbon Street from October to December, 2015 in Merrionette Park, IL. A little background…Bourbon Street is the place every band wants to play. It’s really hard to get a gig there. This place is massive (used to be a Handy Andy store) with several large rooms in which bands or DJ’s perform.
The Rules: After an audition, 10 bands were selected to compete. Each week bands were given themes as described below. After performing, the band would be critiqued by 3 or 4 judges. Judges scores accounted for 25% of the total score, while 75% was based on audience votes. (Semi-finals and finals, the audience had 100% of the votes) Every week one band would be eliminated from the competition. No band could repeat a song throughout the contest, so it was in a band’s best interest to submit song choices early. Each audience member and band member was given 2 votes. Vote for the band you came to see and one other one. First prize: 10,000 smackers.
If any of you thought this contest or even the process would be easy, you are completely mistaken. If I may be honest with you, the band was quite dysfunctional at the start of the contest and we were signing up for two months of intensive time together. The first week was a basic audition to enter the contest. Our first hurdle, choose two songs that all five of us could agree upon. Not an easy task, to say the least. We all finally agreed on “Blue Collar Man” by Styx and “I’m the Only One” by Melissa Etheridge. For this round, and every round after that, 3 to 4 judges would critique our performance. It’s always lots of fun to be publicly judged by others, especially when you don’t know the people. Were they qualified musicians who had mastered their craft and thereby able to offer constructive criticism? (Yes, that’s rhetorical.)
We made it through the audition round. Now, on to the real contest. Every week had a different theme. The first week each of the 10 bands were able to perform six minutes of whatever they wanted. Again, all five of us had to agree on two more songs. I have to admit at this point, I was feeling very nervous about blowing it for the entire band. I didn’t want to choose songs that were too challenging in case I messed up, but I didn’t want to choose songs that were boring. In the end, I went big and choose two strong songs, “Walk Away” by Kelly Clarkson and “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. We nailed it. Were the judges impressed? Not sure. They seemed to like my voice, but one judge told me I should use more vibrato. Strange observation. Another judge said we should interact more as a group. He was right about that. We made it through that round without a problem and set out to incorporate the changes required.
80s Night: We were all stressed about the contest, worrying about the time commitment and the song choices. We had to choose songs quickly and we had a tough time. We only needed two. It was interesting to find that we don’t have many 80s songs on our present set list. Much arguing via text and telephone occurred. Long-winded texts full of emotion. As I was reading one, another would come in. It was bananas. After choosing “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” by Tom Petty and “Material Girl” by Madonna, we had a real gig to perform outside of the contest. Have you ever had to attend a family function while being angry at them all? You still have to smile and act like family. That was a tough gig and I was so glad when it was over.
For 80s night we decided to present a uniformed look. White shirts and neckties. It was a good choice. In later weeks, other bands tried to incorporate a more uniform look. 80s week was a success, although we did take some heat for performing a slower song.
Country Night: If you look at our current set list, you will find that there is not one country song. Not even a song that could pass for a country song. Here was our first big challenge: we had to learn two new songs from scratch from a genre in which we had zero experience. We picked “How Long” by The Eagles and “Stand Up” by Sugarland. Both are good songs that I actually like. Believe me when I tell you, we worked really hard on these two songs. I listened to them non-stop for almost two weeks. Honestly, country night wasn’t our strongest night, but we were very proud of our performance. The funny thing was most other bands didn’t authentically perform country songs. They did Southern rock songs or country songs in a rock arrangement. We thought we were supposed to do actual country songs in a country style. Hmmm…doubt setting in. This was the first time we were in the bottom three bands, meaning we were almost eliminated from the contest.
Disco Night: I thought 80s songs were hard to choose. That was nothing compared to choosing two disco songs. After (too) much deliberation we decided to go with crowd favorites, “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor and “Dancing Queen” by ABBA. Do you have any idea how many words are in “I Will Survive?” I can tell you, there are a lot. Okay, I flubbed one line…get off my back!! Just kidding, it was barely noticeable. The boys did an excellent job, as usual. The crowd was on their feet dancing and cheering. It was one of our best nights ever as a band. Much to our surprise, we were in the bottom three bands again. What? That just doesn’t make sense. Many of the other bands performed funk songs instead of disco songs and weren’t called out on that. Is there something fishy going on here?
Thanksgiving Break: This contest ran every Thursday night from October to December, so we had Thanksgiving week off. During this time, the remaining six bands were asked to make a one minute promotional video. The instructions I heard were, “Be creative. Promote the contest. Promote your band and showcase your personalities.” Also, we were told would be given “points” based on our video. On Black Friday I coerced the band to take part in filming a silly video. The concept was wacky, but they were good sports about it. My brother even came over to help film. We were also told that these videos would be on Bourbon Street’s Facebook page to promote the contest, but that didn’t happen. What did happen is that most of the other bands made a video to promote their band. Some were better than others, of course. I’m lucky enough to have a friend who’s really good at editing. Each video was played before each band’s performance during the next round of competition. Everyone else’s video went off without a hitch, but when it came time for ours, the last 10 seconds got cut off. That was the funniest part. While we were greatly disappointed the entire video didn’t get played, we still won for best video. No points were awarded to anyone. Hmm…glad we went through all that trouble.
British Invasion Night and Video Unveiling Night: Here’s a genre we can really sink our teeth into. Let’s play some rocky roll! We selected “Pinball Wizard” by The Who, “She’s Not There” by The Zombies and “Help” by The Beatles. Not only did we have a good time playing these songs, it was one of our best performances of the contest. While most of the judges praised our promo video, one judge said he didn’t like it. He said he wouldn’t book our band based on that video. Steve promptly retorted that the point of the video wasn’t to get a gig, but to promote the contest, per Bourbon Street’s instructions. For the most part, the judges liked our set and we received many compliments from the crowd. Oh, and the judges really liked my pants. Well, that’s nice. Guess what? We were in the bottom three bands again. What’s going on here? How can that be? We brought dozens of friends and family members out every single week to vote for us. Is this thing fixed? The band who was eliminated that night was not Puddin’ Head, thankfully. It was another band of guys we really liked from Milwaukee. The judges saved them at the last minute, moving them forward to the semi-finals.
Before I move on the semi-finals, I’d like to point out a few things. Every band in this competition was talented. It really was a pleasure to hear each band’s performance. That being said, there was one band that was the alleged front-runner from week one. No matter what this band did, the judges just ate it up. They could do no wrong. Even when other bands had stronger performances, this band was still set up by the judges as “the band to beat.” Here’s the thing though, this band didn’t have nearly as many people as other bands did, but they were NEVER in the bottom three bands. Never. Not even for a second. Is it possible everyone loved this band, so EVERYONE used their second vote on them? It’s possible, sure. Still seems a bit odd, though. Every other band was in the bottom three at some point, but not this band.
Semi-Finals: For this night, the judges picked songs for each band to do. We all blindly drew a song from the 80s, 90s and 00s. Some bands got some really terrible songs. We did alright. It could have been way worse. We performed, “Pour Some Sugar On Me” by Def Leppard, “Hit Me Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears and “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift. The guys hadn’t even heard the two girl songs and I had never heard the Taylor Swift song. Did I mention we had to put these three songs into medley form? Different keys and different genres in a medley. We had less than a week to put it together. Karl really came through on this one. With help from all of us, he was able to craft a seamless medley. It was quite good. The bad news was I had 8 minutes of lyrics to memorize. Have you ever listened to “Pour Some Sugar?” Those words are jacked up. As a group we did a really good job. We played songs we didn’t like that we had just learned in front of a big crowd. And we did it with gusto. Many of the other bands didn’t even perform their songs in a medley, as required, but the judges seemed okay with some bands bending the rules. This night two bands would be eliminated since the judges saved a band from the week before. This is where the curtain dropped on Puddin’ Head.
We were disappointed. Well, I was disappointed and angry. It was such a weird night and it’s where a lot of realizations hit home for me. After our performance, one of the judges said we sounded sloppy. That simply wasn’t true. We heard other bands totally screw up and they were fawned over by the judges. The only bands that received criticism were the two bands that were cut. It was almost like the judges knew who was going to be eliminated, so they had to give just cause, whether it was true or not. Also, when it came time for voting, you wouldn’t have believed how many people were suddenly in attendance. It seemed like an extra hundred people showed up right at the end to vote. It was bizarre.
Needless to say, the finals went on without us. It was a stressful seven weeks. Scrambling to learn songs, practicing non-stop and being nervous for seven weeks straight can really take a toll on a person. While I was sad Puddin’ Head didn’t make it to the finals, I was a bit relieved to be done with the drama of it. Hey, remember that band that the judges picked to win back at week one? They didn’t win. Was this contest fixed the whole time? Did a few bands get a free pass to the finals, while others had to coerce their fans to show up every single Thursday night for 3 months? I think that’s possible.
Bourbon Street runs a vocal “The One” contest a couple of times a year. This was their first time running a cover band competition. Granted, there will be some hiccups, I get that. Rules were changed as the contest went on. Seemed like they were making things up as they went along. People got preferential treatment, seemingly. Some bands were able to hang out after the show to drink with the judges and the folks who organized the contest. Is this appropriate when $10,000 was on the line? Maybe not. Also, the number of votes each band received on a weekly basis was never shared. So it was really up to the venue/judges which bands would move forward. There was no proof shared about the number of votes cast or counted.
Meanwhile, we learned late in the process that some bands had made deals with each other to eliminate other bands. They would get their fans to vote for each other, thereby removing the fairness of the vote. Bands worked together to get rid of other bands they perceived as a threat. Things got a little ugly because of it. As you may know, in a competition people can get emotional about whom they “like” or “don’t like.” Honestly, I feel like our fans were kind and generous. They watched every band and clapped for every band. There was one night where I noticed that a whole side of the room wouldn’t clap for us or engage at all. It was so sad to see. Someone had told these people not to support other bands and those people did exactly that. They clapped and cheered only for their band. That’s pretty awful.
Alright, it wasn’t all bad. We had the opportunity to perform on a nice big stage several times (for free.) Bourbon Street provided cool lights and a sound company to make us sound our best. We have really cool videos to share and we have beautiful photographs of the event. Although we were all frustrated with the process and the outcome, we are very proud of the work we did together. We learned a lot of songs in a short amount of time and we bonded again as a group. Plus, we received a lot of support from our family and friends. That made us feel great. We also feel good that we played by the rules the entire time we participated. We always kept it classy. We didn’t flip off the judges, like some did and we never schemed to get rid of another band. I’m also glad we met a lot of kind, generous and talented musicians. Am I glad we did it? Yeah. Would I do it again? No.
This was not a contest about musicianship. In the end, it didn’t matter if the winning band was the best band. It was a contest about how many people a band could convince to come out and vote. I’m sure the venue made a ton of money every single week and that was probably the point, right? I know our friends and family spent a boatload of cash there. If Puddin’ Head brought 200 people every week, we would have won no matter how good or bad we performed. If any other band had done that, they would have won. Talent got us all into the competition, but talent did not rule the day. Art shouldn’t be pitted against art. This contest did not support local music at all. It actually reminded me how shitty this business can be. Any band, good or bad, can play a gig anywhere they want if they can bring 100 people with them. It’s that simple. An excellent band that can only bring 20 people? Sorry, no gig for you. Why is this so? Because we’ve all let that happen. All of us…bands, bar owners and fans. We’ve allowed venues to treat us this way for years and now we can’t back out of it. It’s frustrating and wrong, and it seems unfixable at this point. To drive this point home, Bourbon Street did not even announce the winner on their Facebook page. Is it because the band they were rooting for the whole time didn’t win? How rude to not congratulate the band that, not only played at your venue for several weeks for free, but also got a ton of people to hang out at your establishment for all of those weeks. Not a professional or kind way to handle that.
But hey, don’t let me tell you what to think. You can find out for yourself. Take a peek at Bourbon Street’s Facebook page. You can see for yourself how much promotion they did on their end, which was very little compared to the promotion the individual bands provided. Also, check out the other bands that participated. And while you’re at it, like their pages and support what they do. They are all talented musicians who have invested time and money into their craft. Here are the bands in no particular order: Evolution, Take Cover, Me & The Fellas, Blue Sky Blind, The Heart Sutra, LAVA Rock, Party Anthem, Reverend “T” & The Soul Shakers, Jailbreak Chicago and of course, Puddin’ Head.
I’d like to show some love to my band. Karl, Steve, Otto and Art…you guys are the best. I’m so glad we did this together. You’re like a second family to me. It’s been an honor and privilege to share the stage with you. If the Village People taught us anything, it’s that you can’t stop the music. And the YMCA is a creepy place to hang out.