When it began back in 2009, Mercy Lounge and BMI's Road to Bonnaroo band-competition series pulled in some rather big local names. But now that your Features, How I Became the Bombs, Caitlin Roses, Tristens and PUJOLs have either played and won the series or earned coveted 'Roo performance slots without the aid of the band battle, the competitors have become more obscure, and the competition less of a sure thing for any clear standout. And so, balancing both our Spin hat and our judge's hat and unsure who the dark horses might be, we strapped in for a long fuckin' Monday night at the Lounge.
The Young International — who drew the short straw and ended up with the first slot of the evening — makes a slick and tuneful sort of post-punk from the mid-Aughts School of Interpol. We can't say that the relative newcomers have a whole lot going in terms of their own personality — aside from the fact that the frontman copped a couple of Thom Yorke's stage moves, even bonking his face on the mic at one point — but it was melodious and certainly proficiently played. Second-slotters and self-described "jungle-groove" longhairs Sol Cat, on the other hand, make an idiosyncratic blend of various latter-day indie-rock sounds, and that was refreshing enough. Comparing a band of younguns to The Walkmen is awfully high praise coming from us, so we won't go there just yet, but we will say that the bouncy grooves of songs like "Dirty Glasses" reminded us of European indie rockers like Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand.
We'd heard a rumor that Michael McDonald, the Silverback of Yacht Rock himself, was milling around somewhere in the at-capacity crowd. While we didn't personally lay eyes on him, we did discover that third-slot performer Dylan McDonald of Dylan McDonald and the Avians is indeed Michael's son. You wouldn't necessarily glean the familial relation from McDonald the Younger's sound, though he can craft accessible pop melodies bolstered by rootsy grooves. As he took to the streets his tunes about "rock 'n' roll beauty queens" and other true-blue American fare, we came to think that he sounds an awful lot more like Tom Petty than his dad. Or maybe that's just us believing what a fool believes. Who can say?
Now, we'd heard Bright Eyes' name dropped when describing youngsters Grass Root Kids, and we definitely saw the frontman's Oberstian qualities just as soon as he led his band into an emotional folk blowout punctuated by modest bits of banter. Yes indeed, there was all the earnest hollerin' we loved so much back, you know, when we had a Saddle Creek bumper sticker slapped on our ride. Seems like GRK brought out a lot of their pals and fans, as the core of the audience whooped and cheered after each cathartic chorus and playful pluck of the violin strings — our photog, however, had a harsher outlook. He didn't like it one bit. Schools, the only non-Nashvillians of the night, are Bowling Greeners who we'd heard have some kind of affiliation with fellow Kentuckians Cage the Elephant. That's understandable, as they make a general blend of '90s alt rock, and while we can't say that any of their songs really stuck with us, we'll agree with one of Mercy's co-proprietors, who we chatted with later in the night: Schools were probably the most, if not only, straight-up rock 'n' roll band on the bill.
Alanna Royale — a name which apparently refers to the band itself, rather than just frontwoman Alanna Quinn-Broadus — was our first of two blasts of organic soul on Monday night. Blue-eyed soul, we suppose you'd call it, with a smooth, full horn section that reminded us a bit of fellow locals Space Capone. Quinn-Broadus has a pretty natural charisma, and that probably has more than a little to do with the fact that her band took home the win. The music itself was ... "creamy," as our significant other might put it, but we enjoyed the part where Quinn-Broadus commanded us "motherfuckers" to bob our heads.
Wayne Coyne-approved psych warriors Linear Downfall (literally Coyne-approved, as Flaming Lips have worked with them and brought them on tour) exploded right out of the gate with a monstrous blast of noise accompanied by some eyeball-and-happy-face-brandishing, Hannibal-masked human props. Yes, "Linear Downfall" was far and away our least favorite band name of the night, but as far as performance goes, you've gotta think about who from this crop of bands would go over well at the 'Roo. And when it comes to the Pink Floyd/Flaming Lips/psychedelic freaks/hippie weirdos contingent — represented by a dreadlocked tie-dyer and a pirate-garbed freak who were dancing pretty hard in front — The Spin is pretty sure LD's far-out, tempo-shifting, disjointed shit is just what the doctor might order. No such luck for the kids though. Too bad.
To be perfectly frank, Ben Harper's retro soulsters Magnolia Sons were the only outfit on the bill that The Spin had previously listened to purely for personal pleasure. The Sons pull influence from the Stax and Volt and Motown catalogs, coating it with a smooth, upbeat, groove-laden delivery, catchy horn hooks and classic four-part harmonies about heartache. Song-wise, we considered them the easy standouts — even competitor Quinn-Broadus was singing along front-and-center — but the crowd began to trickle out even before Harper & Co. were halfway through their set. Bummer.
Lazer Snake — the never-ending joke perpetrated by members of AutoVaughn — was set to close out the night with a post-competition set of their LOL-worthy douche rock. But The Spin has already seen them do their thing, and considering how much local music we'd just sat through, a set of local parody alt-rock sounded precisely like the opposite of what we needed. Thus, we cast our ballot and headed home. Sincere congrats to Alanna Royale — see you at Bonnaroo.