CAMBRIDGE — Ask 50 local music fans for the meaning of the Rock ’n’ Roll Rumble, the annual WZLX-sponsored battle of the bands, and you’ll get 50 different answers. Ask any of the judges drawn from the New England music world on any of the nine nights of competition what makes for a winner, and the answers will run the gamut as well. That’s both the appeal and the drawback of the contest: It’s simultaneously a feel-good, community-engendering homecoming of sorts for the local music scene, and a divisive clash of opinions.
On paper, the criteria for choosing a winner are more clear. Bands are judged on songwriting innovation, on-stage musical effectiveness and showmanship, vocal prowess, pacing of the set, and a certain “it’’ factor. One might make an argument that the winner should represent the most likely to succeed of this year’s crop of bands, although it’s been quite a few years since one went on to make a big splash on the larger national stage — the Dresden Dolls in 2003 being perhaps the best recent example.
Whether or not that will apply to the ’60s-style cinematic-noir-rock of this year’s winners, Eddie Japan, remains to be seen, but as in sports, the championship doesn’t always go to the best in theory, it goes to who performed best in between the whistles. On Friday night at T.T. the Bear’s, they were the clear standouts.
The night got off to an interesting start, with state Representative (and mayoral candidate) Martin J. Walsh warming up the crowd. “Who brought the suit?” one might have wondered. Walsh is the one behind the push to make the Modern Lovers’ classic, “Roadrunner,” the Massachusetts state song, after all, so at least his Boston rock taste checks out.
In what might be its first time following a politician onstage, the young four-piece Twin Berlin hurried through a set of aggressively delivered garage punk. The band — who seem poised for attention outside of the local scene, with memorable tracks like “Can’t Take, Take, Take,” power-chord-slashing pop, and Strokes-like guitar leads – nonetheless wrestled with a poor sound mix that swallowed all sense of nuance and flattened out their quiet-loud-quiet dynamics. “Who’s drunk?” bassist Sean O’Neil said early on in the night, to few responses in the affirmative. “We don't stand a chance,” he joked.
The wide-open, cleaner chords and professional polish of Glenn Yoder & the Western States came as a stark contrast. Americana-leaning songs like “Just Want You to Love Me” found the five-piece harnessing both the genre’s mournful teardrop slides, as well as a rowdy bar-rock energy. “Younger Brother” had Yoder and company coming together with perfectly executed three part harmony, while “Pretty Little Girl” crescendoed into a rousing high point of guitar soloing. The crowd was rightfully impressed.
With the 20- and 30-something acts covered, the seasoned veterans of Eddie Japan — comprising frontman David Santos and an eight-piece band that included two backup singers and horns — completed the survey of the Rumble’s sweeping generational demographic. Songs like the swaggering, guitar-noir of “This Married Life” made it hard not to feel swept up into the enthusiasm of the riveted crowd and the music itself. Sounding something like the house band of a Western B-movie, or a Tarantino soundtrack, the band’s busy arrangements were executed deftly, with Santos’s belting soaring over the mix. “A Town Called Nowhere” made a ghost-town gunslinger standoff sound like a party.
When asked just after their set if he thought they might win, Eddie Japan multi-instrumentalist Chris Barrett said, “No, but I didn’t think we were going to win the other two nights either.”