Musicians Take A Chance On Rock Lottery

Christoph Whitbeck, vocalist and guitarist for Lümp, asked the audience a question before proceeding to his band’s third and final song:  “Do you like to rock?”

The audience responded with screams and applause.

It was the final song of Saturday night of Ideat Village’s 2017 edition of its Rock Lottery — and the culmination of two nights of musicians coming together to show not just their love of rock, but their love of the community that makes music and shares it as well.

The idea behind the Rock Lottery is simple: Musicians are randomly placed into bands and given a short amount of time to complete musical challenges and then perform them to win “bragging rights,” according to Bill Saunders, who organized the event with Nancy Shea. Saunders and Shea create the challenges with thought and care —  “this is like our baby,” Shea noted —  with the point being for the bands to get creative, have fun, and give the audience a memorable time.

Each band begis with a drummer, “because they’re the hardest to find,” Shea said. Additional bandmates are then randomly selecting from the categories of guitarist, bassist, vocalist, and other, “to make sure they end up well rounded.” Band members and their challenges were selected publicly at Cafe Nine three weeks before at a happy hour event. This year’s lottery formed eight bands initially, but ended up with seven for the actual performances. A couple of bands also lost members during the past three weeks, or had members who were unable to play for this weekend. But either way, the show was going on.

Four bands performed at the Ballroom at the Outer Space in Hamden on Friday night and three bands on Saturday night, after Saunders and Shea gave each group guidelines as to what was expected of them. Shea and Saunders have been involved in the event since 2010. They took off the last two years, but returned this year due to “popular demand,” according to Shea.

“We had the most people we’ve ever had interested this year, way more people doing it for the first time, and also the most women we’ve ever had,” Shea noted with a smile.

The four bands that played on Friday were named Ill-Fitting Suit, Kaleidoscope Fevers, Snails, and The Package. The three bands playing on this particular night were named Word Salad Overture, Tin Foil Machine, and Lümp. Shea and Saunders had made up the names. The bands randomly selected them, and once chosen, they had only three days to change them (only three did, according to Saunders).

The challenges for the bands were as follows: First they had to perform a cover song tribute, the only criterion being that it be by a rock star who had died since the last Rock Lottery in October of 2014. Second, they had to do a mashup of mismatched artists (one example of this being Johnny Clash, selected by Word Salad Overture). A third challenge, called “She Blinded me with Pseudo-Science,” involved a randomly selected genre of music and randomly selected “pseudo-science”/controversial theory to be combined to create an original song. A theme song for each band was optional. For their original songs, bands were asked to provide copies of the lyrics to the judges so they could read them as well as listen to them.

Thus on Saturday, five judges — all former Rock Lottery participants — sat to the side of the stage, ready to offer on-the-spot public critiques of each band after each of their sets, similar to American Idol. The judges also each had a checklist for each band to rate and score performances and add comments for review privately after the show. From the two nights of music, the four highest-scoring bands would proceed to the finals, to be held Sept. 30 at Cafe Nine.

Ben Hecht, who played bass and provided backup vocals for the band Kaleidoscope Fever on Friday and also attended the show on Saturday, has participated in two previous Rock Lotteries and both times his band has won. “The masochistic side of me is attracted to the challenge in a box. It appeals to my creative side, getting in that box, working in that box, and doing the best that I can do with friends and strangers,” Hecht said.

Thom Guthrie, bassist and backup vocalist for Lümp, which performed on Saturday, was a first-timer. He described the lottery as something he had always wanted to do, and this year “had no excuse not to.” Lümp originally had five members, two of whom could not perform Saturday, so the band ended up as a trio.

“It’s been amazing, working with fantastic people I’ve never worked with before,” Guthrie said. “The show is made up of an all-star lineup of performers I’ve always wanted to check out. I’m over the moon to be doing it,” he said.

Snails, another band that performed on Friday, also lost two members early on — one being their drummer — and ended up replacing him with a drum program and emphasizing the strengths of the remaining band members.

“We played upon our assets, our vocals, and used five part harmonies and even sang our theme song a capella,” said vocalist Val McKee. “It was amazing.”

Many others agreed, including Saunders himself. “The first band last night made me cry, and if they did that, they did their job,” he said.

Saunders had a similar reaction Saturday night when the first band, Word Salad Overture, sang their original song about intelligent design done in a Goth style, sung by Brian Robinson after removing his shirt and revealing a torso covered in words such as “petrify,” “linguine,” and “magnet.”

“Your heart is beating by intelligent design,” he sang.

Saunders leaned over to me and said “I’m officially crying now.” The crowd responded with thunderous applause and screams.

The members of Tin Foil Machine each wore a tin foil hat. Some wore other foil accessories and shiny capes, performing a mashup of Van Morrison and Morrissey called “Brown Eyed Girlfriend in a Coma” as well as a cover of the Diff’rent Strokes theme song, written by the recently deceased Alan Thicke. This number proved to be incredibly popular with both audience and judges. 

Lümp — the band’s members had added the umlaut to their given name and an occasional German accent to their between-song banter — brought the show to a thunderous end with their original song about feng shui, done in hair-metal band style. It concluded not only with a burst of confetti, but also with guitarist and vocalist Whitbeck on the floor of the stage. (Guthrie checked back in with me post-performance. “There were moments tonight that felt transcendental,” he said. “We rocked the asses off of everyone, and I feel pretty good about life right now.”)

When Shea and Saunders returned to the stage after Lümp’s set, Shea agreed with the audience’s response.

“This is why we do Rock Lottery! This was great!” she said.

Saunders agreed, “What a way to end it!” he said.

The judges then reviewed all of the bands’ scores and critiques. Shea and Saunders announced the winners: Moving on to the finals at Cafe Nine in three weeks would be Snails, Lümp, Kaleidoscope Fever, and Tin Foil Machine.

Each band chose its challenges for the next show right then and there (which this reporter was asked not to reveal). Shea thanked everyone and encouraged people to keep at it. “If you didn’t get selected, please do it again,” she told the crowd earnestly.

Based on the responses from audience and band members throughout the night, it did not seem that anyone would need encouragement to take their chances on the Rock Lottery again.

Ideat Village’s Rock Lottery finals take place at Cafe Nine, 250 State St., on Sept. 30. Doors at 9 p.m. For more information, click here.

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