This past Sunday evening I attended the first and hopefully not last Drunken Canal NYC Battle of the Bands, presented by The Tribeca Festival and sponsored by Pitchfork, Johnnie Walker, Bulliet Whisky, and possibly others whose signage I missed out on, which sold out the capacity of legendary Williamsburg music venue Baby’s All Right. If you live in New York City or regularly read any of the major publications who call the five boroughs home, you have definitely at least heard of the Drunken Canal and may even pretend to have read it when it’s brought up at a party. The once monthly now quarterly newspaper was the pandemic brainchild of Michelle “Gutes” Guterman and Claire Banse who sought to create an exclusively physical piece of media to entertain their friends and help bring them out of the pandemic’s exclusively digital universe. They dropped their newspaper off for the first time at the corner of Canal and Essex shortly after COVID started in 2020, quickly making fans of their circle of friends and their friends of friends and their friends of friends. Their hilarious and irreverent writing about young attractive creative people having fun in downtown NYC and the publication’s lack of digital availability attracted many a fawning profile, though the Drunken Canal also became a target for both projection and scorn from many an apartment bound writer during the pandemic. The New York Times described them as, “[a] local insurgency from a group of people more interested in having fun, looking cool and promoting their friends than in delineating moral and ethical rules,” and pretty much every piece I read about them that wasn’t an interview seemed to either be trying to live vicariously through them or admonishing them because the writer didn’t feel properly in on the joke. The Drunken Canal has undoubtedly become the written voice of the jaded but fun-loving youthful Downtown NYC scene that has made Dimes Square the cultural epicenter of Manhattan. So when I saw that Gutes and Claire brought their friend Justice Maribal, who works in the music industry, on-board to run a battle of the bands to crown an NYC champion I was very intrigued. I love the competitive element of a battle of the bands. While I wasn’t expecting any battle rap-esque sparks to fly, I was interested in the collection of bands the group would put together and what kind of crowd a Drunken Canal NYC Battle of the Bands would attract.
I also have a lot of opinions on what it even means to be a “band” “from” “New York City” as a “music writer” who was born in NYC and raised out in New Jersey who lives in the city now. In my estimation, something like 99.9% of bands that call themselves NYC bands are kids from New Jersey or Long Island who got together either in college or shortly after graduating college, right after they moved to the city for the first time. Lou Reed grew up in Freeport, Long Island and the Vampire Weekend fellas grew up in Ridgewood, and not the one in Queens. You’ve got like Simon and Garfunkel and The Strokes and The New York Dolls and LCD Soundsystem and like a million others I am purposefully choosing to ignore (Wild Pink, The Ramones, several of the bands competing, blah blah blah), but all too often the people coming to the city are the ones who make it their own in rock and roll. Every other genre is locally dominated by NYC natives and there is a whole sociology thesis to be written on the many socioeconomic reasons that rock and roll is a transplant genre for the city, but knowing that only made me more curious to get to know the bands playing. Would a fearsome foursome of TRUE New Yorkers take home the crown? Or would yet another New Jersian be the one singing New York, New York at the end of the night? And how would the judges be deciding?
The list of bands was weeded down by an online vote from over fifty bands to just six. The bands were judged by a panel of musicians and music industry titans. The event was sponsored by Pitchfork and I was looking forward to hearing the takes of Puja Patel, the second editor in chief in Pitchfork’s storied history and one of the only women of color leading a major music publication today. She unfortunately could not make the event which left us with four more than qualified white men to cast their judgements: DaveOne of Chromeo, Tommy Davis of Beach Fossils, the rapper Despot, and Nick Sansano, the legendary record producer behind Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and a professor at Tisch at NYU. Before the competition began, I asked the foursome what would set a band apart from the pack. DaveOne said that more than anything stage presence, energy, and aura were what mattered to him. I asked if a band with bad vibes but massive catchy hooks would get a pass and he said likely not, saying that while you can always write new songs you can’t rewrite an aura. I caught Despot and Tommy Davis at the same time and both said that the performer’s ability to keep the crowd engaged and entertained was going to be crucial to them, they both wanted to see artists who’d make this space and night their own. Nick Sansano meanwhile was hoping he’d hear songs that he’d remember for the rest of his life, saying that unforgettable tunes would be what set a group apart for him.
The event sponsor, the Tribeca Film Festival, was renamed The Tribeca Festival in its twentieth year as a testament to its’ extended cultural reach into gaming, television, podcasting, and music. They put on a great weekend of music programming, from Friday night’s set of YL and Show Me the Body, to Sunday afternoon’s live podding with How Long Gone and percussionist Eli Keszler, all the way through to Sunday evening’s Battle of the Bands. There was a short list of free cocktails sponsored by Bulliet Whisky and Johnnie Walker and again maybe someone I missed that were provided at no cost throughout the weekend. There were also empanadas and hors d’oeuvres being handed out at both the YL/Show Me the Body show and the Battle of the Bands, and while it did feel random, it was greatly appreciated. More concerts should have unexplained sponsors providing free food and booze, you will not hear a complaint out of me. I do have a few questions about why an event called the Tribeca Festival was doing all these events in Williamsburg, but that is for another day.
Anyway, on to the actual battle of the bands! First on the stage were the NYC based synth pop group Moon Kissed who set an extremely high standard for the evening. Moon Kissed were more practiced in this kind of environment than much of their competition, as they had been runners up in Our Wicked Lady’s March Madness themed month-long battle of the bands a few years back. Moon Kissed knew that they’d need to make an impression out the gate given the quality of competition and good lord did they. The battle’s four judges gave quips after every performance which at times were often hard to hear over the crowd chatter but that wasn’t really an issue. You could get the sense pretty quickly if their reactions were positive or negative and it was all positive for Moon Kissed after song one. Moon Kissed mentioned that their only goal for the battle of the bands was to not get eliminated in round one, and they had little worry about after their initial performance.
Up next was Brooklyn post-punk trio Programmique, whose Whirlpool Europe II EP I really enjoyed. who’d been jamming around the city under the name Static Static for a good while before changing their name and energy in 2020. I asked the group what their elevator pitch for the judges would be after their set, and lead singer Alex Potter said, “we’re herky and we’re jerky.” That ethos proved more than true as the group gave a riveting performance of their song “Mississippi ‘‘ where Potter got herkier and jerkier with every letter of the titular state he spelled. Their meandering post-punk style was a hit with the crowd, especially those far enough up to see Potter bust a series of dance moves that left him turtling on his back. The repetition was infectious in a way that I didn’t even realize in the moment, as I have been spelling the name and singing the song in my head since I heard it on stage.
Next up to the stage were Pitman, New Jersey boys Wild Mothers. They were the band most in my wheelhouse going into the show, as they’d played in shows put on by the elite Philadelphia based 4333 Collective as have many bands I’ve written about. They’re as old school feeling as a band was in this competition, listing the Beatles, Black Sabbath, and Nirvana as formative influences, I highly recommend their new self titled album The band also made the old school move of taking time to introduce every member of the band in the midst of “322” which made the performance feel all that more cinematic and definitely helped make a connection with the crowd. They rocked, they rolled, and they made an instant fan out of me and a whole lot of others in attendance.
Up next was Stella Rose and the Dead Language. Stella’s music was the least readily available of the musicians competing, as I could only find live performances of theirs from the Mercury Lounge. What those YouTube videos suggested, and their live performance confirmed, was that Stella had a colossal room commanding voice that could stop you in your tracks or compel you to act like a siren’s song. Stella had far and away the largest social media following of any of the bands in competition which I found out was likely because she’s the daughter of Depache Mode front man Dave Gahan. The nice thing about a competition like this though was that nobody in attendance (judges included) seemed to know that fun fact, leaving Stella and her cohort to earn their spot themselves. Stella’s mic seemed a little fuzzy or something in the first song but the bands energy and stage presence were more than there, the band more than looked the part and more than felt like they belonged. They also had an extremely vocal fanbase, to where me and GSC concert photographer extraordinaire Eddie King were chatting with a friend of their bassist in the front of the crowd for a good bit of the night (s/o the new homie Brian).
Next up was Laszlo and The Hidden Strength, the second band in a row to use the Hootie and The Blowfish style naming convention, whose 2020 self titled album I really enjoyed. The band was fronted by Laszlo Horvath, who I later realized was the model wearing the Drunken Canal’s rugby on their website. Laszlo himself had previous battle of the bands experience, competing at a Temple in Park Slope a few years back with a previous band, in which they came in second. The group had some of the post punk tendencies that Programmique displayed anchored by Laszlo’s dynamic and moving voice. The majority of the group met while attending LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts by Lincoln Center, with the others meeting while at the New England Conservatory of Music. LaGuardia counts everyone from Nicki Minaj to Timothy Chalamet as alumni, but Laszlo and The Hidden Strength were all dressed in their blazers and button downs like they were cosplaying as Regis High School’s Catholic school kids across the park. The band looked dashing and sounded even better, with their electric violinist in particular giving one hell of a performance.
Closing out the first round was NJ born NYC based singer/songwriter Michael Incognito. His music online reminded me of “Black and Gold” era Sam Sparro but he had a full backing band and the songs transitioned seamlessly to the guitar based sound. Michael’s parents were the only people over 40 in the audience and we quickly realized not only had Michael and I briefly went to St. Patrick’s School in Chatham, NJ together but that his dad was my fifth grade basketball coach. What a small world. I promised them that I’d tell my parents they sent their love and that if I had the opportunity I’d try to rig the competition in Michael’s favor. I did not get that opportunity, but Michael really did not need my help, especially in the first round where the judges agreed he had the strongest vocal performance of the early evening. He had personality in spades, I am sure everyone left the BOTB feeling like they knew Michael personally with the way he connected. I asked Michael first what his elevator pitch was for the judges, to which he said he was going to make the judges an offer they couldn’t refuse, and that offer was gay New Jersey pop music. I then asked what his goals were for the competition, and he said he wanted to look out and see a diverse crowd of all shapes and sizes and colors dancing their ass off with good vibes and energy, and I loved how he saw the crowd having a good time as a successful evening. Michael definitely hit that goal with his first performance.
At this point in the evening I couldn’t help but notice how smoothly the event was running. Even with six bands rotating all their gear on and off the stage between each song it never felt like there was all that much downtime, especially with judges commenting while bands loaded on and off. Not a single band had a technical issue or malfunction of any kind that I can remember, which is even more impressive seeing as Chris Black had accidentally turned his microphone off no less than a half dozen times during the taping of his podcast How Long Gone that happened at Baby’s as part of the festival just a few hours earlier. Kudos to the event staff and bands who kept things running so smooth, I’ve been to far too many a not smooth event like this to take that for granted. To that point, I was also impressed with the sincere enthusiasm from the crowd. While a little under half the crowd was clearly there to cheer on someone specific, the majority of people I talked to were just there either because they were fans of the Drunken Canal or had a friend who was who grabbed a bunch of tickets. Even so, everyone I talked to had an opinion on who should win, and those opinions only got stronger and stronger as the night went on and more of the free Bulliet Whisky/ Johnnie Walker cocktails were consumed.
With the closing of the first round the judges announced that Programmique and Laszlo and the Hidden Strength were the first two bands eliminated. I had asked the judges before the competition began if genre made a difference, and while all of them said no, this round of cuts felt like a declaration that it was not a post-punk night. Both bands were good sports about it though, sticking around for the rest of the competition, supporting their friends new and old. DaveOne said before the first-round results were revealed that one of the bands was the surefire favorite and there were real disagreements over which other three bands would make it, which is a testament to how strong everyone competing was. As to which of those bands was the far away leader, well you’d have to ask him.
In between the first and second round I was waiting for the bathroom and heard a young woman compliment a young man on his shirt to which he said, “Thanks! It’s from my grandpa. And these pants are from my grandma!” Being the diligent reporter I am I made sure to go out and confirm the fella wasn’t lying. I turned the corner out the bathroom and hit him with a “You and your grandma are really the same waist size?” to which he hit me with a “They’re elastic dude!” and went on to show off the aforementioned elastic, which I was not ready for. His shirt was indeed a cool old school lookin western shirt and his pants were some fun khakis with floral embroidering, I can only hope he sent a picture to his mom and his grandma because I am sure they both woulda loved it as much as everyone in line.
Throughout the show Gutes, Claire, and Justice we’re splitting time hosting and coordinating BOTB logistics while dressed to the nines in their Sunday best. They were busy, seemingly making sure that everyone from the bands to the judges to the wait staff handing out empanadas were all keeping on schedule, schmoozing with friends as they went to and fro. It seemed stressful but it looked like they were enjoying the thrill of it all, I did my best to bother them as little as I could manage. The three ladies were extremely charismatic whenever presenting on stage, Justice in particular brought great energy whenever announcing the bands. It definitely did not feel like their first rodeo.
Wild Mothers graced the stage to kick off the second round. Each of the band’s three members sings and writes songs, and their cowboy hat clad bassist Brett Thompson announced he was up next saying, “This song is about having sex… in space!” It sounded just as strong as their first round rocker in my estimation. Their music had a familiar quality where I felt ready to sing along with the choruses by the second time they were coming around. The judges did not agree unfortunately. Despot in particular said, “I know your guy’s whole thing is that you all sing some songs, but maybe just one of you should sing the songs.” That was honestly the closest any judge got to a Simon Cowell moment, the judges generally kept things positive. Despot later closed the show saying, “Nobody sucked. So if you are a musician, and you played today and you didn’t win, at least you don’t suck” which felt much more heartwarming in the moment than it is reading right now in Google Docs. Wild Mothers would not make it to the final round, but at least their biggest detractor agrees they do not suck.
Stella Rose and the Dead Language graced the stage next. While her first round performance was strong, she was getting some feedback from the mic that made me feel like she wasn’t reaching the same heights she hit in the Mercury Lounge performances I watched on YouTube. Whatever was going on with the mic in the first song was not going on in the second because she absolutely belted it. She sounded like the Wilson sisters from Heart and had all of Joan Jett’s attitude. While everybody was dressed up for the event Stella was without a doubt the performer who felt the most like a rockstar on stage. Her bandmates all sounded great and looked the part to boot, matching her energy throughout. No surprises to see them advance to the finals.
Next up was Michael Incognito who broke out every trick in his book for one of the most memorable performances of the night. He ripped his shirt off and had the whole crowd chanting with him in unison before he jumped right in to the pit. The crowd was eating it up, creating a runway for Michael to sashay down as they all sang along. The photographers were absolutely loving it as well, after Michael left the stage I heard photographer Matt Weinberg enthusiastically tell Cobra Snake that he got a lot of great shots of Cobra Snake getting shots of Michael’s performance. The judges were less enthusiastic however, feeling that Michael got the group involved at the detriment of his own singing. While it wouldn’t be the last we heard from him, Michael would not make it to the finals.
That left Moon Kissed to close out the second round, who you may have mathematically figured out did indeed make it to the finals. Their synth pop stylings had the crowd grooving the whole night and the band seemed to get more and more into the show with every song they performed. Drummer Leah Scarpati finished off the track with an absolutely gargantuan close that left everyone, their-self included, on their feet. It felt like every time Moon Kissed graced the stage one of the judges said Khaya Cohen had the best vocal performance of the night so far and the second round was no different. On to the finals.
The final round really felt like a toss up to me, clearly to the judges, and to everyone in the room. Stella Rose and the Dead Language and Moon Kissed don’t sound like two bands that’d be on the same bill in any context other than a battle of the bands, with Stella leaning more hard heavy rock and roll and Moon Kissed leaning more synth heavy pop rock jams. Both Stella and Khaya had massive bone chilling vocal performances in the final round that made it feel like everyone on the stage had their life on the line. The crowd was absolutely eating it up to boot. I ended up in a conversation with two people who didn’t know each other or either of the bands coming into the competition, one who thought Stella Rose was the second coming of Stevie Nicks and another who was convinced Moon Kissed would be signed to a record label before they left the room that night. Inside someone at the bar said it was Stella’s night by a hair, where outside after the show Grandma Pants said he was leaning Moon Kissed in a close one.
The judges graced the stage to announce the results with a great amount of trepidation. Nick Sansano was carrying the team’s clipboard with their compiled notes which felt right given he was the academic of the group. There was a lot of pontificating about how stellar everyone was and how nobody should feel bad leaving because they all kicked ass but it was ultimately about who owned that room that night. DaveOne even went as far as to say that the second place band was the one that he could most likely see himself working with, but that it was about who owned the night and the room. Stella Rose and the Dead Language owned the room Sunday night, and they were crowd The Drunken Canal’s inaugural Battle of the Bands Champion. Stella has an undeniable magnetic star quality and commanded the stage like it was truly her own. She had seemed a lil trepidatious backstage in between sets, staying to herself with her headphones in and opting to let her bandmates represent the Dead Language on stage in between rounds, but she was absolutely beaming as she lifted that trophy, a well deserved celebration. Michael Incognito then closed out the evening with a spirited cover of “Dirty Little Secrets” by the All American Rejects, which sneaky has one of my favorite music videos ever. The crowd ended his set chanting “One more song” praying anyone, Michael, Moon Kissed, or Stella, would keep the party going just a song or two or three longer. While only Moon Kissed, Programmique, and Michael Incognito were familiar with one another going into the event, having met while all at NYU, it felt like the beginning of a connection for all these bands. Wild Mothers said that they were already planning a home and away Philly/NYC show series with Moon Kissed before the night ended, and I don’t think they were the only two bands who got to chatting. In my minds eye I can see a not-too-distant future with Stella, Khaya, and Michael coming back to judge a future Drunken Canal Battle of The Bands in between press cycles. If that happens you’ll find me in the crowd with Grandma Pants and Michael’s parents, bragging about how we were all there for the beginning.