I did the thing where I was a judge and it was every bit as frightening as I thought it would be. Overwhelmingly so. I'm not willing to do a lot of discussing the details of the groups that competed, but some of my thoughts are going to be unavoidable, I guess. I took notes, in part to be able to tell the story and in in larger part to take seriously the charge of standing in judgement of an "artistic" endeavor. Some of my fears for the artistic impulse were unfounded, there was little art.
It started easy, it was a group of surprisingly competent kids, a family who wrote songs that ranged from the best parts of the Ramones to the worst parts of Weezer, but were always fun. They won hands down the best song title: "Dude, What's Up With Your Golf Cart?" It was easy to write notes, I fell into advice, maybe because they were so young. You can forget that you're often doing the same job that they are doing and just react as a listener. This was going to be easy. Help them out a little, stay out of judgement on the tunes, just tell them where to tighten up a little and remind them whay they came. I can do this.
And most of it I could do. There was set criteria. Most of the bands were fine - not amazing, exactly - but a few got close and we used the metrics to suss out who did the best job. I made a few notes and I resisted the urge to tell one band that I just couldn't do any better or say anything meaningful because I found myself intensely disliking them as human beings. They were fine musicians, but they were smug and boring. It was even boring that they didn't know they were boring. I had a bunch of lovely side conversations, short vignettes about Phil Collins and his excellent musicianship tempored by his unfailing poor taste. It could have been fun.
Then it got tough. The second act was a Main Guy and another guy who the Main Guy talked into doing the battle that day. And it was bad. I mean really, really, uncomfortably bad. They seemed to be able to play their instruments, (and they played a few instruments apiece, not terribly but not remarkably, either) but they clearly had not only not played together, but they hadn't even discussed what they would do. There was no plan and there was no chemistry. Ten minutes in I had decided that it wasn't - couldn't be - a traditional performance. This was, instead, performance art about audience and how uncomfortable they can be.
This guy got on the stage and started to play something that glancingly resembled a blues bass line, he later identified it as a simple I IV V, which it wasn't but perhaps endeavored to be, and the tone of the set was established. It wasn't anything. The accompanist played some wandering guitar over the baffling bass line, but nothing happened. There was no statement of motif or any exposition. It seemed, at first, to be a paeon to free jazz, but without the sense or sensibility of Ornette Coleman. It was post-Garcia noodling. It cascaded from there: Main Guy played merely competent sax and substantially worse keybords. It was a mess peppered by the occasional breaking of the fourth wall to ask the judges table how he was doing for time.
At times Main Guy would look at the judges table with an indescribably sadness on his pretty face. He seemed to know that this wasn't working and I assumed this was a part of the performance; the realization that being young, good looking and talented isn't enough, but also realizing it at that late moment while the show was underway and the distance back to the beginning is much further than the distance to the end. I belive that the Artist was trying to make us uncomfortable the way Andy Kaufman once did and in that see ourselves.
Be careful looking at yourself. I saw more than a few things I need to know. I need to remember that talent will not replace preperation. An audience is a delicate thing, yes, we can take some abuse, but in the end if you love an audience, respect them and give them a little bit to be amazed at they will lkove you back. I wouldn't have needed much, but Main Guy wouldn't give that to us. Andre, my incredible, excellent friend and wonderful understander of music commented that he had to give this Main Guy the lowest marks availablee: It was what he wanted. He asked for it.
There was dramatic anguish and it was a show, but it wasn't recommendable. Too uncomfortable.
The gent after, however, saved all of our faith in local music. Cuddles :D. That was his name and I'm checking it because I loved it. Cuddles :D couldn't win, he was up against criteria that didn't fit him, but he was my favorite thing of the evening. It was electronic, but Cuddles :D backed it up with presence. He accompanied his computer and mixer with dance, performance and a sense of humor. We laughed and watched him for a half hour, not laughing at him, but completely with him as he took us through his music. Cuddles :D telepathed the parts he thought we should notice and instructed how to recieve the set. How to know him, and how to experience his music. I can learn form that, too.
I love the two sides of the coin. Sure, both were "losers" in any sense of battle, but one was redemptive and one was destructive.
I walked away really unhappy, nevertheless. The final band was a little older and clearly accomplished on their instruments. You could feel they expected to win. This is not to say theyt didn't try. They did. The energy was great, but the songs weren't there and their confidence was offputting. There was no joy when comment time came letting the air out of their confidence.
I'm not made to be a judge of anything. Ask me to write about it or sing about it, but I'm not made for it. I hope it made me a kinder judge and I hope that it made me more attentive. I took it seriously. I drove home with some lessons, really heavy from this gravity I felt over the situation. I felt a guardian of some small hope. I've been where these guys and girls were, hoping and doing your best for a relatively small stake. It feels big, the small town festival opening spot. So I took judging as a big thing. I didn't delight in hurting anyone, though I suspect I did for even the acts I damned with vague praise.
I don't know. I would do it again, but knowing what I know, I'd dread the whole thing more.