Crowded bars are full of people, see, which is a big problem for me because I am completely incapable of holding up my end of a conversation in a noisy bar full of people shouting to compete with music turned up to compete with a bar full of people shouting, and so on ad tinnitum. The slightest bit of background noise renders me deaf-mute, glassy-eyed and fatigued from the elaborate charade of keeping up with what everyone else is saying. I like bars with live music because they provide a surrogate form of the fellowship that people come to bars seeking in the first place, neatly wrapped around a central attraction. It’s the same principle that makes going to see a movie either a great first-date activity or an awful one, depending on your view: lots of spectacle and not much interaction. Cowardly as it sounds, if I have to see friends in a bar at all I’d much rather stand shoulder to shoulder facing a stage with them than actually try and carry on a conversation. I enjoy the general clamor when I don’t have to respond to it or compete with it. Otherwise, I’m usually looking for a dark corner in which to sit or stand unmolested.
And that’s what The Other Side has got in spades: room enough to go missing from time to time without having to be bloody conspicuous about standing off to one side not talking to anybody.
As it happens, tonight I barely know anybody anyway—strange, considering there’s a pretty good crowd, just as there has been the four or five other times I’ve been here. Strange also because before The Other Side opened, there was a good deal of speculation to the effect that the place would attract Jay’s regulars who have been in hiding since their clubhouse closed last fall. I don’t see many of the old Jay’s crew, or anyone else who looks like they’ve ended up here by default. After just two months in business, The Other Side is already stocked with regulars. Not that it’s any of my business, but I can’t help wondering—and can’t really tell, even with almost 15 years of bar-going in Missoula under my belt—where they all hung out before The Other Side opened.
That goes for most of the bands, too. Tonight is special, because the Battle of the Bands has been raging for three consecutive Thursdays, and this is the last night of semi-finals before six bands graduate to the big show and a shot at cash prizes and a grand-prize $1,000 recording contract. Because the venue is so new, no one seems to have the home-court advantage. Only a few of the bands competing seem to spring from any preexisting scene. A lot of them seem freshly put-together, too, which naturally makes this Battle of the Bands more of a level playing field.
The judges tonight are former Spinal Tap drummer Ric Parnell, a disc jockey from the Blaze and the owner of a media company who also manages the musical career of The Other Side’s promotions coordinator, Andrea Harsell—whose own band, for the record, isn’t in the competition. The judges, Harsell tells me, are basing their decisions on five criteria: instrumental/vocal ability, originality, stage presence and charisma, crowd response and marketability. Tower and Living In Tent City emerged victorious from the first week’s semi-finals, joined last week by Illuminati and the Krooks.
It costs $3 to get in, a bargain price for a sampling of six bands playing short sets. Actually, all bands should keep their sets this short; one of the guys at the door tells me that a jam band whose members had to adapt to the time limit by cutting some of their instrumental excursions short were actually surprised by how much better they sounded. Most of tonight’s competitors seem to favor more concise material. I arrive too late to catch Casual Drama, power trio Hot Action and most of The H Is O’s set, but MT Saints sound weaned on Two-Tone ska, with a cool Specials keyboard sound and a vocalist who occasionally sounds like a dead ringer for Fat Mike of NOFX. Yellow Dwarf Theory, who seem less solicitous of audience participation than some of the other bands competing, take the stage to a chorus of whoops and whistles that never lets up, clearly audible even when the two-guitar attack reaches a deafening crescendo. They must rate pretty highly in the crowd response category. Stage presence, too: The singer/guitarist’s manhandling of his instrument causes a number of people within earshot of me to comment on it between songs. Elysium drums up a pretty good response, too, with an acrobatic frontman and a keyboard player who occasionally picks up a guitar to devastating solo effect.
I leave with my ears ringing and no idea which two bands have won this final round of semi-finals. I’m not playing kindergarten teacher here when I tell you this, merely repeating what I heard all night from bouncers and soundmen: With so many winners, it’s going to be tough to pick just one.
Elysium, Illuminati, the Krooks, Living In Tent City, Tower and Yellow Dwarf Theory duke it out in the Battle of the Bands at The Other Side on Thursday, March 4. Competition starts at 9 PM. Cover is $7 for ages 18–20, $5 for ages 21 and over. Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org