"Battle of the bands" competitions remind us of high school or, worse, movies starring Joan Jett and Michael J. Fox about high-school "battle of the bands" competitions. The nationwide Bandemonium contest visited our state last month, and three South Florida groups nearly rose to the top.

In fact the town of Hudson, Florida's own Harry Dash came within steps of the peak. The trio gave it their best college-radio try, foisting their clever, three-minute tunes in front of judges and unsuspecting spring breakers, who probably still haven't shaken catchy songs like "Money's in the Bag" out of their heads.

Actually Harry Dash ended up throwing $1500 into its bag by the time the band placed second at the Bandemonium finals in Panama City on March 21 and 22. To ensure a large, enthusiastic crowd, the two-day beach bash was fortified with big headliners like the Jungle Brothers, Moby, Fastball, and Marcy Playground. Last year's grand-prize winner -- Darwin's Waiting Room from Miami -- came back to pass on the crown, bringing the funky, bass-heavy groove that endeared them to the judges in 1999.

Bandemonium, sponsored by the folks at Musicland/Sam Goody, makes an effort to find the best unsigned band in the country and throw the winner some cash and exposure. Beginning six months ago, more than 800 groups from all over the country submitted material for consideration. Judges whittled that stack down to just sixteen bands -- two from eight geographical regions -- and pitted those two against each other in their home market.

This March 9 quarterfinal event at the Hard Rock Cafe in Miami showcased a bout between Fort Lauderdale's Jadestone and Harry Dash, with the latter taking the spoils. Jadestone went back home to Broward, while the victors of each of the eight regional conflicts were videotaped performing and had those tapes reviewed by a panel of judges from promotion firm SFX. Along with Harry Dash (which has spent most of its time playing shows in and around the Tampa Bay area), Bobby Llama from Minneapolis made the final cut. In an interesting coincidence, Minneapolis just happens to be home to Sam Goody's corporate parent, Musicland.

Just as interesting, Bobby Llama took the title, beating Harry Dash at the Panama City showdown. Although Richie Wise, lead singer/guitarist for Harry Dash, never expected his Britpoppy band to make it that far, he expressed disappointment at the outcome.

"That was one of the best shows we've ever played," he said last week. "Plus, it was the biggest crowd we've ever played to. And we thought we got a better response from the crowd than [Bobby Llama] -- the crowd was not as into them. We just felt really confident. You never expect to win, but we thought we had a good shot at it."

Jadestone guitarist Gary Titi took it in stride: "Yeah, we got drunk afterward," he laughed. "We did the best we could, but sometimes the dice rolls a certain way."

But winning the contest doesn't guarantee success. Despite coming home with a prize package worth almost $20,000, Darwin's Waiting Room didn't see its victory translate into a bigtime break. Record companies did take a cursory glance at the band following its win, but to date nothing has come of it.

The contest doesn't provide an entirely level playing field, however. Because bands simply send in a demo tape or disc of their material to be considered, they may well be basement hermits with great ideas and a four-track -- but no experience playing in front of an audience. And in the heat of competition, that's a real disadvantage.

Then there's the whole issue of the best unsigned regional act in the nation being chosen by Sam Goody.

Musicland and Sam Goody are chain stores and are generally adjacent to an Orange Julius or a Gap Kids. Since they're the type of music store (and that's a loose term) where clerks are specially trained to give blank, unknowing stares to customers asking for anything outside the middle-of-the-road merry-go-round, it's hard to fathom the retailer championing unsigned indigenous bands -- unless they sound like Mariah Carey or Backstreet Boys.

But Jabe sees it more pragmatically. "They sell your basic Top 40 music. A lot of people are fooled into not believing this, but if you're a band looking for a major record deal, you're basically signing a contract saying you want to sell mass amounts of records. And if you don't sell mass amounts of records, you're not holding up your end of the bargain. When you get signed to a major label, you need to sell millions of albums, and that's why Sam Goody is a good representation of that, because they'll help you sell millions of albums."

Ever optimistic, Jabe predicts all this attention focused on our local music community is coming to a head soon: "There's a huge buzz about the South Florida music scene right now, and all of the national companies are talking about it. Bands like Nonpoint (a West Palm Beach hardcore outfit ) just got signed to MCA. Everybody's calling us the next Seattle, except without the drugs."

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