The Hard Rock Café in Barcelona is located in a beautiful space that opens out above a steep stone entrance off La Placa de Catalunya. The rectangular shape of the main room invites the audience to pack out the area around the stage, and by 8pm, no space was left unclaimed. An electric charge began to build around the venue as the excitement grew in the at-capacity crowd.
Hidden away in a small green room behind the stage were the six finalists, each act already a winner from one of five regional heats held at Hard Rock venues around the world — powered by ReverbNation and its Curation Team. Nervously counting down the last few moments before the grand finale, the six bands had nothing left to do but wait, instruments in hand, until it was their turn to perform.
I’ve been a judge several times on similar global talent searches, and it’s worth saying that it’s more nerve-wracking than it sounds. What if all the bands are terrible? What would I say?
The reality is that any act capable of making it to the final round of this competition would be great.
My fellow panelists, including Alyssa Castiglia from Island Records, also confessed to a little pre-match anxiety. And as we sharpened our pencils over our scorecards, we held out hope that tonight would be a great night of music.
Our task was simple enough: pre-weighted scorecards prompted us to grade the songs, the performance, musicianship and overall commercial appeal. But any system that tries to quantify music is imperfect, and ultimately, our scores could only reflect our gut reaction to the music. With that in mind, I approached the finals with the feeling that any of the finalists could win that night.
The first artist up was Chanson Calhoun, a talented singer-songwriter from Kentucky. Offering an explosive blend of organic hip-hop and soulful R&B, she crooned and strutted her way through an impressive set of original material. As she left the stage the audience roared, and the judges breathed a sigh of relief. We were off, and clearly, this was going to be a tremendous night of music.
Second up was Enemy Planes, a tight indie-rock outfit from Minnesota. Echoes of M83, Foster the People, and acid jazz created a canvas for frontman Casey Call’s vocal lines to float above a sonic storm. The band cast spells on its audience, aided by their futuristic use of traditional electric lap-steel sounds. As they gave up the stage, Enemy Planes left a final note hanging as a postscript to a beguiling set, delivered with precision and conviction by a kick-ass band.
Two down, and our job went from hard to impossible.
The third act didn’t make our task any easier. As the winner of the Hard Rock Rising video cover contest, I knew a little about Wolf Colony before the night. His gorgeous cover of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” had been a staff favorite around the office, and I was looking forward to seeing his original set. Wearing his trademark wolf mask and backed by a powerful drummer and standout keyboard player, Wolf Colony grooved hard through some of the strongest songwriting of the night. It was a great night for dance music, and as the Wolf howled, he definitely found animal lovers in the young Spanish crowd.
Two bands managed to bring their own fans with them to Barcelona — an impressive feat considering the bands travelled from Scotland and Argentina.
Break the Butterfly came out fighting. They also proved worthy of their name, as Celtic melodies collided with a relentless wall of sound. I have a weakness for Scottish bands like this, who tend to do this genre of music better than anyone else. After the second song, the audience they brought with them from Fife merged with the local crowd to create one big sweaty mess of happy people. The lead singer didn’t need to pull out the bagpipes to win us over. But sure, bagpipes never hurt anyone.
Let’s just say, I wrote “bagpipe solo – AWESOME” on my scorecard, and spent the rest of their set on my feet.
Blazer, all the way from Buenos Aires, had also imported a rabid group of fans to cheer on their sound-barrier breaking brand of heavy rock. The band won the night in terms of tearing down the walls. I was surprised the venue was still standing after they left. They literally tore the place apart, and like every band that night, they won new admirers and impressed the judges with their passion, drive, talent, and professionalism.
And so on to Dorothy. What can be said of a trio of post-punk, Clash-inspired Japanese guys with the coolest boots on the planet? If there was an act that we all fell in love with on the night, audience and judges alike, it was these guys. We started smiling from the moment they walked on stage, and there’s still a Dorothy-induced smile on my face as I write this two days later. The band went crazy. The crowd obediently lost their minds, and the 3 lads who’d never been on a plane before—let alone left Japan—proved that music is the one true language that unites us all. (And seriously, where can we buy those boots?!).
The judges retired to a small room in the basement to deliberate. It wasn’t easy. In fact, we all agreed that there could be no loser.
If we had to pick a winner, fine, but everyone else was coming in second.
Enemy Planes were simply the first amongst equals. They had a sound we believed would go down well at the festival on Saturday night, and they’d worked hard to craft a set that made sense for a new audience.
Judges, audience members, and contestants were all treated to a great night of music, driven by the spirit of friendly competition. The event brought a diverse group of artists together from every corner of the globe to share a passion and commitment to music. Speaking to the musicians at the hotel later that night, they’d clearly had the experience of a lifetime, and made some new friends they’d stay in touch with long after the night ended.
Enemy Planes looked completely at home on the Hard Rock Rising stage on the beach two days later. It was great to see them win over Robbie Williams and Avicii’s audience with their Minneapolis brand of modern rock and roll. They’d come a long way from seeing the competition in their ReverbNation inbox in 2014. From regional finals in the Mall of America to the final battle in Barcelona, their efforts culminated in a triumphant set in front of a huge festival crowd, sharing the stage with mega-stars like Lenny Kravitz, Kings of Leon, and Avicii.
Congrats to Enemy Planes, and a big thank you to the other finalists, and everyone who participated in the competition this year to make such a success of Hard Rock Rising 2015.