I arrived at Velour about 30 minutes before show time on Saturday night. A week earlier, the venue’s Number Two, the lovely Kaneischa Johnson, had asked me to help out with judging the competition. (I tried to tell her that I was just a hack writer that was less than qualified for that sort of responsibility, but she didn’t care.) A few of the other judges were already there—real music people: songwriters, artists, producers … industry people. And then there’s me, the guy who fills the page with flowery language, every once in awhile talking about a “soaring guitar solo.” Kaneischa briefed us on the judging criteria and what she expected from us. I looked at the paper with the criteria that she had given us all, appended to a clipboard: Musicianship, Songwriting, Crowd Response, Stage Presence and Vocal Performance, all out of 10.

After a few more awkward minutes of me trying to include myself in these real music people’s conversations, the show mercifully started.  The night’s opener was The Band West, a Provo-based rock/soul outfit. A soul band in Provo? Yes. And they are badass. They opened up with “Shame,” an angsty electric blues track that, right off the bat, shows off the strengths of the band. James Dawson is a shedder of the highest order. The man knows how to absolutely destroy guitar solos and the songs that they played were perfectly structured for just that. And then there’s Miss Amber Lynn Stoppel. Good God, this girl can wail. She has all of the stage presence of Stevie Nicks mixed with the voice of Nancy Fuckin’ Wilson … well pretty close, especially when she opens up those vocal chords and lets go, like in their song “War,” which saw Stoppel almost knock over the crowd when, as the music fell, she screamed “Better get your armor!” a definite highlight of the night.
 
If I do have a criticism for The Band West, it’s that they should build songs strictly for the vocals of Stoppel. Their songs often featured both Stoppel and Dawson singing, and while Dawson has a great, bluesy voice, the man should just take a step back, do work on that guitar, and let Stoppel be the singular front. The whole band is great, and I would go as far as to say they have the most potential of anyone who played Saturday, but Stoppel is a star … a figure that people would go out of their way to see.
 
Scores: Musicianship - 7 Songwriting - 6 Crowd Response - 9 Stage Presence - 7 Vocals - 9
 
Total: 38
 
The next group, Strange Family, reminded me a bit of Fleet Foxes. Their somewhat docile demeanor was a distinct departure from their predecessors, which made for a bit of a let down when it came to the crowd. That’s not to say they were not formidable—they are a very good band. The highlight for me was the poppy “Young Love,” which saw them open up a bit. They are a pretty new band that has a little way to go to figure out the whole stage presence thing.
 
Scores: Musicianship - 7 Songwriting - 8 Crowd Response - 7 Stage Presence - 5 Vocals - 7
 
Total: 34
 
Next was Good Honest Effort. To see these four, skinny, dorky-looking white boys from Utah County, a blues band would probably not be your first guess. But listen to them for two minutes and you’ll swear you’ve been transported to some smoky club on the South Side of Chicago. This was my favorite band of the night. They were lively, fun, personable, tight and, admittedly, playing one of my very favorite genres of music.
 
While the whole set was great, no other song, on the night, gave me chills like “Dragon Lady.” It is easily their blusiest number they played. It walks along slowly like those old blues songs do, but builds to a face-melting solo that evokes Hendrix or King. This is a band I would definitely like to see with a full set.
 
Scores: Musicianship - 8 Songwriting - 6 Crowd Response - 10 Stage Presence - 9 Vocals - 8
 
Total: 41 
 
The night’s winners, Young & Old, have a lot going for them, obviously. First of all, they seem like some of the nicest guys on the planet. Second, their sound is accessible and familiar without being cliché. And finally, their lead singer, John Hancock, has one of the smoothest voices around. It’s crystal clear, silky and at times heartbreaking. I’m looking at my scores for them and I am baffled—maybe I missed something at the performance, but listening back to them now, I definitely should have given a higher score for vocals. Their best song on the night was “Cellar Door.” It’s very well arranged and was beautifully executed. There’s a moment in the song where Hancock steps away from the mic and the band does its thing. In that gorgeous moment, the band shined brightest.
 
Scores: Musicianship - 7 Writing - 8 Crowd Response - 7 Stage Presence - 5 Vocals - 7(wtf?)
 
Total: 34
 
The final act of the night was the absolutely insane Pändo. They dance, they jump around and brothers Johnny and David Vance lead the madness. They are a pretty new band, only playing together since January of this year, but they already have the performing thing down. Musically, they aren’t necessarily my cup of tea and genre-wise, I have no idea how to describe them. They’ll go from a very indie sound to a song that sounds like something straight from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” At times, it was almost a little too much, but those boys were having a great time and the crowd was having fun, so who cares? Despite not really loving the music, they ended up being my highest scoring act, mostly due to how great of a show they put on.
 
Score: Musicianship - 7 Writing - 7 Crowd Response - 10 Stage Presence - 10 Vocals - 8
 
Total: 42
 
Subjectivity is a bitch. I’m not saying that just because neither the band I liked the most (Good Honest Effort), or the band that received the highest score from me (Pändo), won the competition. It’s not even because the band I gave the lowest score to (Young & Old) won. It’s just a hard pill to swallow to see anyone win or lose a music competition based on the views, as unbiased as we all were trying to be, of a dozen or so judges. I mean, music, and the taste in it, can be argued to be extremely subjective—but to put five bands, all very good, up on a stage in one night and decide which one was the “best” ... I don’t know. It just seems damn near impossible.