Ethan Hulse, Robert Jon & the Wreck, Italian Japanese, The Devious Means and Mphase
The Constellation Room
Feb. 14, 2012
Despite the almighty lover's holiday, The Constellation Room was crawling with fans for the Orange County Music Awards Best Live Band Showcase. (We hope you got your free Farmer John sausage samples and sugarfree Red Bull fix because it was the last showcase of 2012 besides the finals). While I was happy to park my car in front of the venue, I arrived to a sparse room and a delayed start time. (Good for me, bad for The Constellation Room.) This showcase seemed to host the worst attendance thus far. Blame Cupid, or blame the performances? Sure, the venue is a bit larger than say, Detroit Bar, but everyone had plenty of breathing room.
The best thing about the venue was the fact that Constellation Room's lighting and sound rig are state of the art. Who doesn't love a fog machine on auto-pilot? It's definitely the prime location for a Best Live Band OCMA showcase. There was massive sound radiating from the speakers, and the night's bass that could make your heart leap right out of your chest. It was Valentine's day, after all.
Ethan Hulse: The intro to his performance will be deemed a guilty pleasure and one of the most memorable parts of the 2012 OCMA showcases. Hulse began in the midst of the crowd, with nothing but his guitar, a harmonica and his lumberjack outfit plus suspenders. The lighting matched the simplicity of the intro; seemingly nonchalant, like a street performance. Someone throw this guy a five spot, because he laid it down. Hulse made his way onto the stage in the middle of the song, transitioning seamlessly into a full band performance to finish his first song of the night. A nice welcome to the last Best Live Band showcase.
As for the rest of his performance, it was similar to an early morning Sunday biblical sermon. Hulse has a great voice, but it was a boring set. If he'd maintained the energy and exuberance of his intro throughout, we wouldn't have felt like whores in church. As if single people don't feel awkward enough on Valentine's Day, Ethan took it upon himself to auction off two of his band members while on stage. (We also rolled our eyes at his Freudian slip of an offensive comment--feel free to mention it in the comments section if you noticed it.)
The gag me factor was taken to a whole new level as Hulse serenaded his significant other standing front and center with a cover of "Can't Help Falling in Love" by Elvis Presley. Does this guy want to win Best Live Band, or get laid on Valentine's Day? All in all, we experienced a local version of The Fray with banjo as added value. The intro was the best part of the entire performance.
Robert Jon & the Wreck: These guys definitely would have won in terms of energy and performance for Best Live Band. Keyboardist, Steve Maggiora can play the tambourine with more energy than a nuclear bomb. It is one thing to play with passion and vitality, but when the quality of your actual playing suffers, it isn't really worth the effort. Their performance was so animated and in your face, that the slip-ups were hard to miss. The vocals were at times pitchy, and the drums were definitely off due to the fact that Andrew Espantman could not stay in his seat long enough to complete a fill. It almost seemed like every member of the band was fighting for the spotlight. The enthusiasm radiating from the blues quintet was very much appreciated, but there really isn't an "I" in team. (Trust me, I spell check.)
They also referenced Valentine's day, but in a classier sense, "I have a mattress in the car," Jon said. (Ladies, get in line.) I have never seen a keyboardist play with his teeth, a drummer pace behind his drum set in the middle of a song, or a bass player so dead on that his playing was overshadowed by the showboating unfolding all around him. I could not have been any more overstimulated. The effort of the performance is very much obliged, but maybe we could take it down, just a notch. Best Live Band would go to RJ & the Wreck if they could only finesse their songs.
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Italian Japanese: Right off of the bat we were warned of a missing guitar player. At least they gave us an explanation for the what was going on. The psychadelic foursome came out in muffled noise and extensive guitar finger-tapping. I could barely hear the vocals, and when I could, it was a mish mash of "whoaaaaas" and "ohs." I'm sure they have some pretty intense lyrics, but no one could really hear them. I didn't know where one song ended and another began. Smoking peyote in a deep, dark cave, I closed my eyes and felt weightless... no, I was in The Constellation Room. Being understimulated by Italian Japanese was a tough transition, especially after being overstimulated by Robert Jon & the Wreck.
The Devious Means: Cue the trumpet intro and the Devious Means had our undivided attention. It seemed like everyone and their brother came to see them perform. The Devious Means are masters of crowd interaction, even giving out boxes of personalized Candy Hearts for audience-initiated percussion. (Good gimmick. Tasty gimmick! It was an easy and clever sell.) I was totally digging this poppy sound from the keyboards and guitars, but as soon as the vocals cut in, I have to admit I was utterly disappointed. Prolonged talking, rapping, whatever you want to call it; was something straight out of another decade. Don't get me wrong, I'm a '90s kid, Tetris and Smurf my little heart out, but this genre is old news. The hooks were catchy as all hell, but it's something we've all heard before. Were the members of this band previously in a gospel choir? They were so animated on stage, it was almost as if it had been choreographed and rehearsed many, many times. Jason Mize stole the show with his impressive performance on drums. Someone give that guy a solo. They covered Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire", and I actually really enjoyed their poppy rendition. They brought a sense of youth to the the roster. My inner child was caught red-handed dancing along to their set.
Mphase: Dual keyboards + a drum kit = something right out of the '80s (or 2020s?). How old are these guys anyways? The show-goers who braved the entire show (most left after their friends performed) had the opportunity to experience Mphase in all of its pop-synth glory. People were dancing--Mphase had that going for them at least. They might have had a better reaction from the crowd if they were given an earlier set time. The set included wacky instrumental songs, which at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night made for a zombie-dreamlike state in most of us.
Best Live Band in OC, were the winners on stage last night? Quite possibly, but my guess would be absolutely not.