Monday, October 22, 2007

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‘Next Great American Band’ is no ‘Idol’
Not only do judges rip into performances, they break up bands, friendships

TV AMERICAN BANDall-girl rock band Rocket, performing in Lake Las Vegas, Nev.
By Craig Berman
MSNBC contributor
Updated: 6:21 p.m. PT Oct 21, 2007

Contrary to all expectations, "The Next Great American Band" is nothing like it’s parent, "American Idol."

The obligatory foreign judge speaks with an Australian accent, not an English one. Sheila E. is not another Paula Abdul — in her own words, she's "the sensitive, nurturing, but I'm-not-gonna-take-no-mess judge." And host Dominic Bowden isn't Ryan Seacrest — he's just New Zealand's version of the ever-present American entertainer, as he said in the show's introduction. Yes, it really is that dramatically differenent.

But the real difference is that the show offers the judges the chance to rip into poor efforts from lead singers and to drive wedges between friends by singling out the poor performers within individual bands. Not only do people get their dreams crushed (accompanied by the requisite maudlin rock vocal), they also get to hear that it's all their fault that their buddies are going home early.

That's what happened to Northmont in the premiere. The Ohio-based band auditioned for the judges only to hear that while the lead singer was good enough, the rest of the group was lacking. But it was good enough to earn a second chance to audition.

After a night of practice, cursing and acrimony, Northmont got another chance … only to hear the same thing: The singer was great, but the musicians stink, so pack your backs and go home!

The sad thing is that in the non-reality TV version of the music scene, that happens all the time. There are plenty of acts playing in bars and clubs that have a big-time drummer and a small-time singer, or a front man losing time with a band that isn't good enough. It's just different when the news comes not from the long and grueling journey to stardom, but from one of the Goo Goo Dolls, an ‘80s act and an Australian.

Ready to rock
Nevertheless, it's not hard to see where the show draws its inspiration, and the fact that the contestants are finished acts adds a level of intrigue that could prove to be compelling. None of the groups look like they just decided to be a rock star five minutes ago and happened upon this soundstage, a trait that's a hallmark of the "Idol" auditions. Plenty of the bands have been around for a long time, and play like it.

Among the early acts featured was Sixwire, a Nashville-based band that's been together since 2000 and once had a record deal with Warner Bros., complete with a single that made the Top 40 on the country charts in 2002. Not surprisingly, the act was "among the best musicians we've had before us," according to judge Ian Dickson.

You had bands who, in the words of the judges, "looked like bands," such as Dot Dot Dot and The Hatch. The Muggs don't look like a modern band, but they sure sounded like old school rock. Tres Bien was solid. Franklin Bridge went straight from the Philly club scene to the final 12, and could make it a lot farther. The Clark Brothers have no drummer or base player, but have the energy to go a long way.

Plus, there's The Likes of You, with front man Geoff Byrd, who already has experience winning popular support with modern technologies. His Web site points out that he's's all-time top-rated artist, and the group has opened for Hall and Oates on a U.S. and Canada tour.

Others were much, much worse. Because the audition process began with bands sending in DVDs, the show had to invite the crappy bands to Las Vegas in order to insult them. It seemed especially cruel for bands such as Fifi LaRue, who had to put on their heavy makeup and wardrobe in order to get smacked down in the Las Vegas desert, or the Dirty Marmeduke Flute Squad, whose singer wore a massive horse's head.

Risky gimmicks
Of course, this wouldn't be a 19 Entertainment production without some gimmicks.

The main thing Ian Dickson brings that's unique from other judges is the reminder that the winner has to be a recording artist, not just a bar band. Plenty of the acts were entertaining enough to sell $5 cover charges every night of the year, but didn't have that hit-record potential. Nevertheless, the show took three groups to the final 12 that don't have a chance of selling very many records, and two others who have a long way to prove that they're legit.

The Zombie Bazooka Patrol is an entertaining act that John Rzeznik accurately termed a one-hit wonder, but voted through anyway. They rocked the rest of the bands, but it's hard to see how a group of singers in zombie paint and ties is going to be anything other than a novelty act. Besides, they might eat the brains of their rival bands.

Denver and the Mile High Orchestra are a great-sounding big band, and if FOX viewers have been hoping that genre will make a comeback, the group could go a long way. But the paucity of big-band music on the radio makes that highly unlikely.

Cliff Wagner & the Old # 7 plays some mean bluegrass, which is a little more popular than the big-band sound — but not by enough to give the group a legitimate shot to win.

However, the biggest danger to the long-term credibility of the show comes from a pair of bands that, depending on the show's demographics, could go a long way.

Light of Doom isn’t a bad act if you like ‘70s and ‘80s metal. The problem is that everyone in the group is 12 or 13, and regardless of how they sound, they look more like candidates for the Disney Channel than anything else.

The all-girl punk band, Rocket, has a more credibility in part because they're a tiny bit older and because their sound isn't something from 30 years ago. But they're still more gimmick than big-time band, and in ordinary times, they'd spend the next five years playing clubs and waiting to impress the right people.

For those girls, "The Next Great American Band" could be great, since they could easily win this. And as far as the record end of the deal goes, it might not be a bad thing – Rocket could definitely sell records.

But "American Idol" has an age limit for a reason. The show appears to older viewers as well as teenagers, and the ability to text-message at warp speed isn't enough to decide the winner (though it did help keep Sanjaya Malakar on the show for a long time). If the winning act is a faddish band, it may sell a couple of hit singles but won't be anything close to what the show is ostensibly looking for in its title.