Demo Derby

Commerce and art shake hands at the City Museum

There's a pretty simple truth about being a music writer that I've yet to really pick up on: Show up late. If someone tells you Chingy and Ludacris are arriving at 11:00, don't get there until at least 12:30. After all, these guys are musicians. Have you ever been to a concert that started on time? This helps explain why, early last Wednesday, I was standing in the City Museum like a sucker, waiting for the Grammy Demo Review to start. I couldn't even find the greenroom to eavesdrop on VIPs.

Three hundred fifty St. Louis musicians had submitted demos to the Recording Academy for this chance to get critiqued by ten industry professionals. So the crowd was pretty well mixed between hopeful musicians, industry insiders and corporate types trying to sell something.

You learn pretty quickly how to size up corporate PR. One of the gaudier methods for getting publicity is to get some young ladies in small shirts to come to these parties and interact with the crowd. Like a comely group of lasses over in the corner, whispering, "Let's go to the VIP room. They have Schlafly beer there." What corporate behemoth were they shilling for?

They were the RFT Street Team, of course. And they had VIP passes. Commerce wins again. Oh, well. What use did I have for a VIP room? I was reporting, dammit! Well, not really reporting, so much. When one of the Grammy officials offered to introduce me to the judges for an interview, I begged off. There might have been quotes, or (eek!) facts, and there goes my subjectivity straight to hell. Besides, the judge standing next to the official made me nervous. Mulleted and slightly weathered, with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, he looked like the type of hitchhiker you wouldn't pick up, not because you think he's going to kill you, but because you're afraid he might sing to you.

Besides, it was almost time to hear the demos. The selection of songs, supposedly chosen by the judges, was suspiciously varied: three Latin, two hip-hop, two R&B, two rock, one country. But the judges, against all expectation, actually gave solid, technical advice to the artists after the tracks got played. Advice about mastering, marketing and instrumentation. Of course, there were the little white lies ("All 350 demos were really worth listening to"). And I could complain that this is typical corporate-music facile ass-kissing, but why should we hold the recording industry up to a higher standard than ourselves? I tell my grandma she looks great every time I see her, but really, she's all wrinkled and pruney. So who am I to judge?

I'm a music critic, that's who. So let's get to judging. The crowd favorite was clearly Coco Soul, and for good reason: The diva-to-be has some serious pipes. But she's going to have to get some more club-friendly beats onto her song "One Day" before it's ready for the big time. Maybe she could ask Indica, whose track "Tragic" featured sternum-cracking bass that had the crowd going nuts. I think it might have featured some lyrics, hooks and melodies too, but who cares? Just keep that bass pumped and people will listen. Core Project's "High Fidelity" probably sounds great live but needs a tighter groove on tape (think "The Seed 2.0"). The judges, particularly the one with the Taliban-length beard, loved Mr. Wizard's "Single Again," but his clichéd country musings just left me time to reminisce about the time Mr. Wizard sliced a banana without peeling it.

The judges chose Shine as the big winner, for no discernible reason. One of the judges explained that the version of "Stains" the audience heard was poorly transferred and that we were missing subtle acoustic guitars and musical flourishes. This is good news for Shine, because it means that they don't really just sound like Staind wannabes. The bearded judge told Shine that they had something great, and if any producers or DJs or critics couldn't hear it, forget them. Good advice.

After all, it didn't take me long to forget them. Because the story has a happy ending: I found the greenroom, heard the good stories (have you heard the one about the rabbi looking for lost digits?), and a Street Teamer gave me an RFT keychain. Corporate America wins again.

Local musician Steven Strayhorn has been drumming since he was seven and drumming in St. Louis bands almost as long. He has recently been diagnosed with colon cancer, and to help him out, Hammerstone's in Soulard is sponsoring jam sessions and fundraisers all weekend long. If you want to hear some good music for a good cause, go check it out; call 773-5565 for info.

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