By Ashley Zimmerman
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By Sayre Berman
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Around midnight, it seems like most of the rock 'n' roll fans in the county are squished into Swampgrass Willy's, in the heart of Palm Beach Gardens, trying to celebrate with their hometown heroes.
This is Big Bang Radio's album-release party, and considering the fantastic yet turbulent year it's had, this is essentially the climax to a long, exhaustive journey as South Florida's biggest band on the rise.
Everyone gathered around the band at a large, sprawling table is downing beer and drinking shots by the gallon. Light liquor, dark liquor, whatever. A fifth of Patrón Silver sits on the table and is just a few healthy shots away from being trashed.
We've got rock 'n' roll without sound here. It's a spirit. An energy that lives on inside of bands that have "it," and regardless of whether we're talking local, national, or international, you know "it" at first glance. Throw in the fact that the album Big Bang Radio is celebrating tonight, To Mars From Babylon, is about as well-composed and sonically solid a release to come out of South Florida all year and, well, those shots and beers that everyone is consuming seem well-deserved.
Orlando's alt/hard-rock band Lighter Exchange is on stage, wailing away to the crowd's delight when I first walk into Swampgrass Willy's, and the guys are doing a good job of keeping everyone in good spirits. Not that it's needed in this eccentric little dive bar. For what it's worth, lead singer Christian Wilson's flowing locks and powerful voice are making for a damned good set, and if it weren't for this being another band's album-release party, most folks at Willy's would be glad to see Lighter Exchange close out the night. But there's no denying that this is Big Bang's day — and night (the group has already played two shows earlier in the day, and it's preparing for its third gig in eight hours).
Big Bang is clicking on all cylinders and rocking like there's no tomorrow for a reason. It's already tasted success and seen it slip through its fingers once, and it has a better understanding than most local bands of how quickly the wheels of rock 'n' roll fortune can turn against you.
It was around this time last year that the band was gearing up for the opportunity of a lifetime. The group was on the Bodog Battle of the Bands reality television show, in which they competed with 7,300 other bands for a shot at a million-dollar recording contract. It had started out at the local level, where Big Bang Radio and its former lead singer, Francisco Del, were competing locally just for the chance to represent Miami in the Bodog competition. In case you're wondering, Miami is sexier when it comes to reality television than West Palm Beach. Despite the fact that four of the five members in BBR lived in West Palm, when it won the local battles and the producers of the show gave it the green light to compete nationally, Miami it was.
Soon, the five gents were traveling by bus across the country, rocking out night after night, going through staged challenges to satisfy the requirements of reality TV but still winning every step of the way.
The group made it all the way to the finals and was in the top three, but there was one problem. As a lead singer, Del was about as reliable as Nick Saban is as a head coach. According to the group's keyboardist, Ron Anthony, "collectively, as a five-piece band, it wasn't working out with him. It was hard, and when you go 30 or 40 rehearsals without seeing him, that says a lot." According to Anthony, Del had also stolen about $2,000 from his bandmates, they claim, and that was the final straw. In the finals, the biggest opportunity of their young lives at hand, the four members of BBR voted Del out of the band (on national television, mind you) and were promptly disqualified from the show. Changing personnel midcompetition wasn't allowed. They did what they had to do, but a million large is no small chunk of coin to let slip through your grasp.
"We have no regrets at all about what we did," Anthony continues. "At face value, a million-dollar contract sounds really nice. At the end of the day, it sounds a lot nicer than it really is. [Bodog Music] didn't really give us enough incentive to pursue this project with someone that we weren't happy with, so we got a new lead singer, and frankly, I think we sound a hell of a lot better."
Who says integrity doesn't have a cost?
The truth is, they did make the right decision, although chances are they would have beaten out the two other bands and been on the cover of Rolling Stone and Spin and making babies with Britney Spears' li'l sister right now if they hadn't dropped Del and done the right thing. And listening to them in the back of an eccentric li'l dive bar is all the evidence you need. Their new lead singer, Mike Sanchez, formerly of Dirty University, is a strong blend of prima donna, confidence, and moxie, all of which are needed to front a hard-rock band.