Rock judge

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 June, 2004, 12:00am

Life is full of inane niceties. Honesty is all too often misinterpreted as meanness - nowhere more aptly demonstrated than by judges at talent shows. Contestants are reduced to tears, while the audience loves to hate them.

So, it was impossible to pass up the invitation to judge the World Battle of the Bands competition, a global event rocking and rolling its way through Hong Kong, the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Not that I want to make anyone cry, of course. The opportunity instead afforded a momentary glimpse of freedom of speech. Not to mention lubrication with free beer.

Up for grabs is the chance for the winning band to press a record, win a van-load of musical equipment and, of course, gain the distinction of being the best of the best.

Like a musical World Cup, regional preliminary fixtures are followed by semi-finals and finals. This is then repeated in each region until the winning bands converge on Auckland in December to duke it out for the mantle of best band in the world. The event kicked off on Tuesday, with the first of 16 heats at Carnegie's in Wan Chai and for the next four Saturdays at the Fringe Club in Central. The grand final is in August.

Joining me in the lofty heights of the Carnegie's balcony to judge this opening bout are cinematographer Chris Doyle, DJ Kulu, music guru Wong Chi-chung, Thinking Out Loud rocker and music publisher Chris B, and organiser Andrew Featherstone, who started the event 11 years ago in Auckland, and co-organised the Hong Kong leg with new local entertainment group Tyrrell Corporation.

'It's been a little bit stressful, this being the first international heat,' says Featherstone, lighting up his umpteenth cigarette. 'It's good to be reminded that it's all about the music, after sorting all the logistics out,' he says, keeping an eye on the steady trickle of punters lured in by the promise of free vodka.

'They ought to have filled the place up with groupies, though,' says Doyle helpfully, displaying an early penchant for the evening's rock'n'roll ethic.

Drawing the short straw to go first are Sha Tin-based nu-metallers Nothing None. The judges are told to imagine the pub is packed out before marking them for crowd reaction - the later the slot, the more inebriated and up for it the punters will become as the night wears on.

There's plenty of ice to be thawed, too. Nothing None's bespectacled lead singer Lewis Cheung Chi-ho gives the impression of being a computer programmer rather than a hell-for-leather rocker. This is reinforced when he mumbles something about Korn being 'the greatest band in the world'. About 90 seconds later, however, the ice has evaporated and collective hairs are standing on end. 'Oh god, the anger's changing me!' howls Cheung in deep, death-metal tones as he flings the specs away and his band storm through Korn's Did My Time.

Their original stuff, written by drummer Xavier Poon Kwok-fa, is even better, and by the end of the allotted 35 minutes points are scored in criteria that include professionalism, songwriting, musicianship, vocal ability, originality and overall entertainment factor.

Ultrastatic are up next, displaying the sort of tightness that's made them local favourites. 'It went surprisingly well seeing as we were actually supposed to play on Saturday, not tonight,' says guitarist Nick 'Wig' Hawley afterwards. 'But it's great to see people who have come to support and cheer for us. There's a great atmosphere.'

With tonight's top two progressing to the semi-finals, the third band on the bill has a tough act to follow. And while the intriguingly named Zazan make a game effort of Santana's Black Magic Woman, they miss the ending and write themselves out of contention. Musicians who hunch over music stands don't score many style points, either.

'We're a very temperamental band,' says founding member Brett Buckland afterwards. 'We just want to take any opportunity there is to play. We have some very good moments, but we're a little rough at the edges. I don't know much about the keyboard player, either - he only joined yesterday.' Top points for effort, nonetheless.