Conversation buzzed as heavy metal music blared in the background. On Sat., Aug. 17, East Texas rock fans, ranging in age from 16 to 60, filled the carpeted halls of Tyler’s Liberty Hall, anxiously awaiting its “Rock Paper Scissors” Battle of the Bands. Over 150 people crowded into the main area as the lights dimmed and the music stopped.
Liberty Hall Manager Anne Payne stepped out onto the stage to begin the show. After giving due thanks to the event’s crew and organizers, she described the event; each band had exactly half an hour to set up their equipment, play their music, and take down their equipment. Judging would be based on two factors: a popular vote, based on the 150 ballots handed out before the show, and a judging panel, made up of Gina McClung of Kyser Musical Products (the event’s sponsor), Jammin’ Jimmy Olson, Vice President of Operations with Waller Broadcasting, and Paul R. Bibeau, a record industry veteran who has worked with Anthrax, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Deep Purple, and Twisted Sister to name a few.
With that, Ms. Payne introduced Chris Brantley, the emcee. With his microphone in one hand, he walked all across the stage, whipping up the crowd with cries of “Are you ready?” They were.
The applause died down as an eerie melody filled the room. Lightning fast electric guitar notes layered over dark, heavy power chords as an evil sounding voice laughed manically, screaming about hell, death, and similarly cheerful topics. As the music hit its climax, the members of StillBent began to appear, starting with Lord Riff, the lead guitar player. His face covered by a black and red mask, he began playing along to the spooky intro music on his flame-decorated guitar. One by one, the rest of the band emerged, ending with Red, the lead singer. He was dressed all in black, with a shaved head, an iron cross belt buckle, and goggles. A group of hard core StillBent fans lined up at the edge of the stage, wearing black StillBent T-shirts. Their music continued in much the same vain. Their rhythm was hard and heavy, and the vocals alternated between melodic and harsh.
After some half a dozen songs, StillBent ended their show and took down their equipment. When they had finished, Mr. Brantley re-emerged and introduced Struck By Hammerz! The audience hushed as the band began its show by playing Charlie Chaplin’s famous speech from “The Great Dictator.” As his voice rose in its earnestness, so the band’s backing music rose in its volume and inspirational tone. From then on, the Struck By Hammerz’! set was very upbeat, positive, and fun. As they ended their final song, the lead singer began throwing free copies of their latest album, “Tomfoolery” into the cheering crowd.
When they had finished taking down their equipment, the emcee introduced the third band, Blacktop Mojo. They came onstage with little fanfare, and began playing an excellent blend of Southern rock and alternative country that eventually began to win the crowd over. Near the end of their show, they proved their mettle as musicians and as showmen with a cover of the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be,” which drew great audience participation during its famous sing-along chorus. After one more song, the broke down their gear and left a very happy crowd.
Once more, Mr. Brantley emerged to introduce the final band, Westbound 21. They came out one by one, each new instrumental element layered on top of the last. Westbound 21 played a great show, which was mostly country-tinged Southern Rock, until the finale, when they used Stevie Wonder’s funk classic “Superstition” to lead into the popular theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire,” which drew a lot of laughs.
When they finished, the lights brightened and much of the audience went into the lobby to wait for the results. They didn’t have to wait long, because after about 15 minutes, the winners were announced. One last time, Chris Brantley emerged to announce that all four bands would be receiving a professionally filmed video of their performances for marketing in future. That said, second place and a $300 cash prize, courtesy of Kyser Musical Products in Canton, went to Struck By Hammerz! First place, $500 from Kyser, and a slot in the upcoming East Texas All Star Showcase went to Blacktop Mojo.
“We’re pretty pumped about this,” said Matt James, the lead singer and rhythm guitar player. “We’re ecstatic, exhilarated, honored, blessed. What are some more words for ecstatic?”
“We were pretty confident that we had put on a good show,” added Kenneth Irwin, the lead guitarist, “But we were shocked when ‘Blacktop Mojo’ came out of his mouth.”
Along with Nathan Gillis on drums and Chris Davis on bass guitar, Blacktop Mojo will play a slot in the East Texas All Star Showcase on Sept. 7. The annual event will be held on the brick street in front of Liberty Hall in downtown Tyler that Saturday, from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Admission is $20, with discounts for local college students with a valid student ID. The VIP package costs $35, and includes a drink voucher, a meal from Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Que, a meet-and-greet with Austin-based headlining band Uncle Lucius, and admission to the Card 53 comdedy show. For tickets, visit www.outhousetickets.com .