The annual Beta Hi-Fi emerging band competition continued last night with its first-ever installment in the vintage moviehouse grandeur of The Copeland Theater at Wilmington’s World Cafe Live at The Queen. Some random fun facts about this impressive space learned while taking my seat at the judge’s table: before opening in 2011, the Queen sat shuttered and unused on Market Street for over half a century. A reel of the last film shown there, 1959′s House on Haunted Hill, was still lodged in one of the projectors when renovation began. Spooky.
In addition to the notably different vibe of the setting, the lineup at The Queen’s Beta Hi-Fi finals was something else altogether from its northerly equivalent. While competing bands in Philly were chosen solely by audience vote, The Queen determined its last round through a mix of audience vote and panels of judges throughout the week – meaning some acts vying for top honors were unconventional and experimental, rather than purely being crowd-pleasers.
Walking away with first place was The Districts, an impressive young four-piece from Lititz, in Lancaster County. The band channeled the rock-and-soul vibe of Cold War Kids and Spoon; singer Rob Grote’s searing voice cut across the concert hall, blending with the band’s smartly-arranged instrumental interplay. They do the very Pixies loud-quiet-LOUD thing, but in a more textured way than simply turning their overdrive pedals on and off. A thundering swell cuts, leaving a clean guitar arpeggio floating in space as Grote catches his breath; the verses build in waves, with the heaviness sometimes derived just from Braden Lawrence’s drums. Grote is an intense, emphatic, occasionally bewildering stage presence – he kicks, stomps and snarls, both at the mic and far away – but guitarist Mark Larson and bassist Connor Jacobus hold their own, shuffling and bobbing and giving the overall band a dynamic stage presence. Check out “Four and Four” from their album Telephone below, and watch these guys close – they’re moving fast.
In second place was Bethlehem duo XVSK, an unconventional collaboration of cellist Trevor Exter and drummer John Morgan Kimock (son of jazz guitarist Steve Kimock). Initial impressions: Exter plays his cello while standing, which I’ve never seen before. And they strongly reminded me of Morphine, which is always sure to catch my ear. But let’s not pigeonhole here – these guys had no saxophone (Morphine’s signature instrument), their melodies and phrasing were more folksy, and they embarked on sound-loop excursions and freak-outs, always returning to Exter’s suave vocal delivery. Both top bands won promo packages from festival sponsor Tri-State Indie; in addition, The Districts won a copy of ProTools 9 from Drexel University. XVSK returns to Philadelphia on September 30 to play a live / improvised score to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at PhilaMOCA.
Other bands in the running included Political Theatre, a West Chester three-piece whose dramatic delivery and arty tones took cues from Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Jeff Buckley’s Grace; South Jersey’s The Quixote Project, a feel-good folk-pop ensemble and possibly the first band to pair bluegrass stylings with bongo drums; and Glim Dropper, an energetic prog-pop trio from Philadelphia. For more on the competition, its prizes and sponsors, visit the festival website here.