One group was in the favorable position
to close out the night, and shortly after they stopped kicking out the
jams just before midnight, the judges’ opinions were tallied and—drum
roll, please—Sophistafunk was announced the winner. As the
judges themselves were not revealed, neither were their scorecards, so
it’s impossible to say how close the competition was, but during their
sets, all five bands proved worthy enough to merit championship
Phantom Chemistry kicked off the
night, and according to their Myspace page, one of their influences is
Keystone Light beer, but the only musical inspiration they list is Daft
Punk, and there’s definitely a strong hint of that electro-pop in their
sound, but they also get hard and heavy at times. John Ocasio plays synthesizer exclusively, which adds that futuristic touch, while lead vocalist and guitarist Mike Burriesci
plays old-school chops taken right out of a “how to play guitar like
Jimmy Page” video cassette. He even went so far as to bust out a
double-neck Gibson guitar a la the Zeppelin shredder, and at times was
writhing around on his back on the ground soloing. Luckily, Burriesci
needed no roadie assistance to get back on his feet to finish the tunes.
Higher ground: Singer Jack Brown and drummer
Emanuel Washingston of Sophistafunk, who won the Westcott Theater’s Big
Break competition. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Rounding out the quintet is “Jet Set” Ted Bratt on guitar, vocals and keys, Dillon Cook on bass and drummer P.J. Sweeney.
As far as concept goes, this might have been the most original band on
the night, but at times they seemed to be in rehearsal mode and much of
their material sounded too unpolished for the robotic arrangements they
were conveying. Hell, during one of the tunes when Bratt traded off his
guitar to sit at the keyboard, he went so far as to sing through a
vocoder—which is almost indistinguishable from a talk box—sounding like
what it would be like if HAL 2000 had started a prog-rock band; it was
one of the impressive highlights during their set. Their set wrapped
with a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” from the Dark Side of the Moon album, which fit nicely into their new millennium wave sound.
Juice Break, arguably the most talented musicians to let it out that night, had a literal jam session of sorts. Lead guitarist Anthony Donofrio
told the crowd before their set that because of classroom commitments,
the band hadn’t “jammed together in about a month.” But none of that
was apparent in their tight, hour-long instrumental set. While they
kept their jams from being too overindulgent, as some strictly
instrumental bands tend to do, it’s possible the lack of lyrics knocked
off a few points from judges’ scorecards.
Musically, however, they’re in the same
funky, stoner rock mold as Queens of the Stone Age or Primus. And if
Juice Break can find a way to throw some of those whimsically far-out
lyrics in the lower realm of Primus frontman Les Claypool over their
massive grooves, they really have the potential to breakout on the
local music scene. Alongside Donofrio was bassist Keegan Kelly, and the skin-hitter who just goes by A.J.
All of their tunes were unnamed, but one that had the crowd feeling
not-so-stealthily riotous was a riff on the James Bond movie theme.
Perhaps the addition of a couple of go-go Bond girls dancing around
stage would have rendered the crowd speechless, and been a fair trade
for the band’s lack of words.
Augustine is familiar to the
local hard rock scene and hit heavy with that look and feel of bands
from K-Rock’s playlist like Godsmack or Shinedown. Like those rockers,
they’re trying to do something new in their musical niche in the sense
that they play all original music, and it actually rocks. While they
weren’t the evening’s best group, Augustine might have been best at
winning over the crowd, which is often just as important as musical
For a relatively new band, they swagger
on stage like they own the place. And if they go at it for a few more
years and let the music catch up to the ego, Augustine—which features Joe Dimaggio on lead vocals and guitar, Nate Hopper on lead guitar, Jon Cane on bass and Ricky Kuhn on drums—will be a serious force on that endless summer music festival scene.
Guitarists from runners-up Gracious Sakes Alive captivated with deep solos.
Gracious Sakes Alive was perhaps
the most interesting band on the evening. Self-described as
melodramatic pop, their music does indeed contain all of the emotive
affectations of interpretive dance, often starting off slow like the
first few breaks of a sunrise before swirling into a glaringly mesmeric
cacophony. The Mars Volta meets the Grateful Dead attempting to
euphonically enunciate Kabuki theater seems apropos to describe their
They’re an interesting bunch of lads—Jimmy, Joe, Timothy, Lewk, Nick—to
say the least, and if you ever see Gracious Sakes Alive on the bill,
it’d be worth checking them out. (No band bio was provided as of press
time) They’re a band you’d just assume was from Ithaca—and not just
because they appeared to be very relaxed on stage—but because it’s been
a while since a band like this made a splash in Syracuse. But like this
night, and the contest itself that included almost 50 original Syracuse
bands, it’s proving there is a wave of good things happening on our
music scene, and it’s really up to the support of the people to
determine which direction the tide turns.
Sophistafunk was the de facto headliner,
and these guys believe they’re the funkiest mofos to walk their space
in time, and that cool assurance really emerges through their music.
It’s impossible to not feel your body’s involuntary contortions free
your mind and let some ass-shaking follow. And judging by the gyrating
collective behavior of the crowd, there was a symbiotic connection
through the good vibes of Sophistafunk’s universal rhythms.
Adam Gold, deejay of the now-defunct Funk Show on WAER-FM 88.3, and also owner of the live music/soul cafe Funk ‘N Waffles,
handles keyboard duties in the band, which also includes doubling as
the bass player on a Fender Rhodes piano bass with one hand, while
playing melodies on a Nord Electro and Clavinet with the other. The
never-unsmiling Emanuel Washington anchors the rhythm section with smooth and funky beats on drums, while Jack Brown lends his vocals that combine a flavor of the old school with a hint of the new.
Playing as a unit for more than three
years, these soul brothers were the most refined of the bunch,
contradicting their tendency to get the crowd to let loose. And whereas
electronic music has kind of burned the bridge for soul music in the
1960s and 1970s to jive across and evolve, as the hip-hop age has
caused rhythm’n’blues to kind of tail off into a purgatorial abyss—kind
of hard for a machine to evoke true soul, you dig—Sophistafunk’s picked
up where many left off and there’s bits and pieces from all those
greats like Sly Stone, Eugene McDaniels and Stevie Wonder found in
their music. In their cover of pioneering rapper Arika Bambaatta’s
“Renegades of Funk,” they managed to posthumously connect the dots
between hip-hop and the golden soul age, as Gold and Washington
instrumentally recreated the groove to Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”
while Brown sung the lyrics with the smooth depth of Al Green.
Whether Sophistafunk’s brand of funk may
be the direction of the genre in the coming decade is yet to be seen,
but if it happens, the world would be a better place. And Gold made it
subliminally clear he intends to be around, covering Sly Stone’s “If
You Want Me To Stay” in a quasi-encore, which came after the
hard-to-top, quasi-ringer moment during “Renegades” when the band
called the human loop sampler Joe Driscoll up to the stage for
a round of beat-boxing between all on stage, which set the night over
the top for the band. Driscoll, the local one-man band who has found a
niche in Europe the past couple years, claimed afterward this was the
first time he’s sat in with Sophistafunk. But that’s what the music
scene needs to thrive: support from each other, and support from the
listeners. Rock on, Syracuse.
—Michael K. Thomas