Chalk it up to Venus being in retrograde, but there was something off about The Deli Magazine’s recent Best of Emerging Artists Festival (or, cleverly, B.E.A.F.). Admittedly, I’ve been very lucky to have seen a number of really talented and exciting “emerging” bands recently from NYC or otherwise. My expectations were high for the Alt Rock Stage at Spike Hill this past Saturday. While they weren't exactly met, it was still an interesting evening and proved a point that I'd been pondering for a while: much like a great recipe, no amount of talent will make up for the lack of that indefinable, alchemic "it".
When I arrived bluesy grunge throwback The Nico Blues was playing. All baggy ripped jeans and dirty hair, these boys were channeling the nineties in a very serious way. A little angsty Gin Blossoms here, a dash of The Spin Doctors there and a hefty dose of Oasis and Blur for good measure; the band's sound is immediately likable because it is so familiar. The eighties might be hot in Brooklyn right now, but I have a hunch this nouveau pop grunge might catch on considering the hipster contingent's love of nostalgia. Too bad more of them weren't around to hear the band in action.
Thinning the Herd was up next, another band heavily referencing the nineties, only this time it was the early nineties at the very zenith of heavy metal’s popularity. It isn’t surprising. If you’re a metal head, that was arguably the golden age, when Metallica could actually top the charts instead of desperately clawing at relevancy by suing people and making weirdly emotional documentaries. Guitarist and frontman Gavin Spielman was clearly influenced by the polished but still thrash sound of Metallica, with some echos of White Zombie, Sound Garden and even Alice in Chains popping up. From songs like “Buildings” to “On Fire”, nothing here was earth shattering, but it certainly wasn’t bad.
Brothers was suitably patriotic, hanging up an American flag for the duration of their alt country/rockabilly set. In denim and leather with greased hair, the dapper lads looked like a costume designer’s idea of a tough biker gang from the fifties. The look perfectly accented their sound which struck me as being the musical equivalent of barbecue. Smokey, bluesy, and extremely American, their songs of rock and roll and the South and women were heartfelt and fun; Johnny Cash via Elvis. While they were missing their drummer (his absence was most keenly felt on their opening number which felt weirdly off beat), they played their best and seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Apollo Run was arguably the most interesting band of the evening. Like some boy band with serious musical talent and tendencies to jam elegantly; John McGrew, Graham Fisk, and Jeff Kerestes are crafting a sound that doesn’t fit neatly into any one category. With the angsty ebullience of Panic! At the Disco and the grandness of Muse the group’s angelic, perfectly matched harmonies lend an otherwise standard mid-aughties alt rock sound a much needed bit of levity and a measure of actual artistry. After a rousing, dance filled set, the lads leapt from the stage and danced and clapped with the audience to close the set. While it seemed to annoy the band that was following, it was a great punctuation mark for such an energetic performance, and the crowd clearly loved it. It just might have been the highlight of the evening.
Closing the evening was Ellis Ashbrook. It was an unfortunate time slot for the exceedingly talented prog band; they didn’t get started till about one fifteen in the morning. The upside of course was that they didn’t have to leave the stage at any particular time; perfect for a group that enjoys going off on a good and lengthy musical tangent. Referencing Rush (the synth years) to Jefferson Airplane and even King Crimson, the quartet’s musical prowess and expertly crafted songs were solid throughout. With atmospheric songs like “Snakey’s Got Demon Eyes Big Time” and “Desert Raft”, Ellis Ashbrook is actually making the jam band relevant again. Despite poetic, at times obtuse lyrics, their songs are immensely fun to listen to; you could imagine spacing out in your apartment in Haight Ashbury with Ellis Ashbrook on the stereo. One of their closing numbers was Led Zeppelin’s seminal “Rock and Roll” which really was exceptionally good for a cover, rousing a group of clearly wasted B&T revelers to dance in some hellish circle of inebriated joy. It felt inappropriate and completely out of place - but I guess after two in the morning, all bets are off.