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Photo by Jake Buntjer

At Velour,  a venue in Provo, 20 bands gathered between June 14-19 for their chance to win a giant basket of cash, a session at a local recording studio and a heap of gift certificates. Who was going to decide their fate? Me. And a few other official judges. Oh, and a few hundred fans stuffing their votes in a vintage Santa cookie jar.

I enjoy the atmosphere in Velour, with its muted lighting and pure authentic ‘50s- ‘70s style décor that actually doesn’t reek of stale cigarette smoke. I judged on Friday and Saturday. As a trained anthropologist – thanks to our very impressive UVU professors –  I felt I had a unique perspective, but had no idea of how to put that in writing when I was asked to write down my credentials, as I am yet a few credit hours from my BS degree. Also, having been in on the local music scene for a decade, is hard to put that experience into words without having a title that can be capitalized.

The voting system was thus: Each judge was given a score sheet with scales to rate each band on showmanship, musicianship, vocal ability, etc. I added a new category in my notebook: chick magnet spectrum. This category is unique in that, statistically, one band member can sway the chick magnet rating for the rest of the band.

Take, for example, one particular drummer in a trio. The other two guys were … meh, but that drummer, in spite of his bad shirt, brought in the drooling girls. Up shot the rating. In cases where there is a female band member or, glory be, more than one token female, of course the spectrum switches from chicks to general magnetic quality. (Side note: As a female musician in Utah County, I can tell you that most bands don’t even consider females as qualified musicians. It’s usually a kind of sausage fest.)

I wasn’t overwhelmed or underwhelmed by the performances Friday. To steal a term from one of my favorite professors (Dr. Haagen Klaus), I was more or less whelmed. I was impressed with Vibe Rising, whose genre, reggae, is near and dear to my heart. They also happened to be technically the best musicians and the most popular with the crowd, so they went to the finals the next evening.

I was much more whelmed on Saturday. Still not overwhelmed, but then, I’m a tough critic to satisfy. The finalists of the week were put to the test: Norther, The Neighbors, Sunflow, Dandy Lyon and Vibe Rising.

Norther’s audience was the most interesting – they were the only truly captivated ones. They sat on the floor and shushed the very few people whispering to each other. Their ambiance was surreal and creative, their use of nuance subtly spectacular. It was like Simon and Garfunkel on even more psychedelics.

The Neighbors are a brother and sister duo who embody the Happy Valley feel in a mood floating somewhere between mundane, interesting and frightening. While I was pleased to see an actual female on the stage playing bass and keyboards and singing, the overall mood was just a bit mundane. Their sound was not new or really exciting. The audience was chatty and responsive only on cue.

I will say very little about the following band, Sunflow. I was not impressed. Those who usurped the stage after them blew them so far out of the water, they’re probably somewhere in Iowa, hitchhiking back home.

It was difficult to not be impressed by Dandy Lyon, whose stage presence was engaging, musicianship was incredible and creativity was unmatched. They were original without making originality look like insanity. The audience was enthralled and enthusiastic, and I wondered for a moment if they were playing over a recording. The sound was that clean. All the musicians were masters of their art, and were having as much fun as their audience.

And so, when my personal favorites, Vibe Rising, took the stage, I was a little sad. While their audience begged for an encore and chanted their name over the name of the winner, I had to take my personal preferences out of the picture and vote like a critic. I would still buy CDs from Vibe Rising and from Norther before Dandy Lyon (but only just), but I was forced to conclude that Norther just wasn’t as versatile as the judging system warranted, and Vibe Rising just didn’t comparatively have the greatest vocals or the most diverse sound. With a heavy heart, I handed the technical win to Dandy Lyon. The other judges apparently felt the same.

All told, I had a great time. I met some great people in the judge’s area. The organizers of the event were very kind and told me how happy they were that I could make it. Hopefully I’ll be able to do it again next time around. Until then, I’ll be watching the local music scene with my critical eye, wondering who our future contestants will be and hoping Vibe Rising is among them again.