For the ninth year running, World Cafe Live in Philly hosted its annual Beta Hi-Fi Emerging Music Festival last week, with top honors going to cinematic indie trio Wave Radio and garage rock four-piece RFA in last night’s finals.
As I do every year, last night I sat on the judges’ panel of the final round, alongside Jennifer Logue of Rock On Philly and Christianna LaBuz of World Cafe Live at The Queen. It’s always a great way to take in a cross section of up-and-coming musicians from our region. Last night we got quite the range, from haunting Australia-born singer-songwriter Elspeth Tremblay, the funky and charismatic Nalani & Sarina, the country-infused Allie Carroll and the poppy Valerie Broussard.
Wave Radio took the stage first, and immediately established themselves as the act to beat. The West Chester band has an impressively full sound for only being a three-piece - James McGlaughlin plays a pair of keyboards in the Ray Manzarek style, where the left hand carries the high lead melodies and the right hand runs the bassline. The band actually wrapped their set with a cover of The Doors’ “When The Music’s Over” – which, even though I wish up-and-coming bands would stop covering classic rock hits already, I’ve gotta admit they wore this one pretty well. Considerably better were their originals, which incorporated some of that Doors-y sense of wandering psychedelia but was probably more in line with the buoyant pop of Jukebox the Ghost and the cinematic anthems of fun. Colin McGetrick has a dynamic voice; Chris Cotter’s drumming is uptempo and on point. The band’s self-titled debut is a free download on Bandcamp now, and it has a handful of regional shows coming up. For its grand prize package, Wave Radio got (among other things) a photo shoot with Philly photographer Lisa Schaffer and a headlining gig upstairs at World Cafe Live in Philly in early 2015.
Later in the night, RFA were the other clear standouts. Some technical difficulties snagged parts of their set – namely a piercing feedback squeal during a quiet song which, admirably, singer-guitarist Christian Turzo soldiered his way through – but when its gear was behaving properly, the band rocked hard with a tremendous energy and stage presence. They too dropped a classic rock cover – a slowed-down take on The Beatles’ “All My Loving” – but I won’t hold that against them since, like Wave Radio, their originals were so tight, with fierce instrumental solos, a lot of pep and a great sense of Nuggets-y garage rock goodness. I went into their set knowing I was going to enjoy it on some level, since their Just Don’t Turn The Lights On EP caught our attention earlier this year. But something – maybe the scuzzy lo-fi recording – made me suspect they were going to be more on the sloppy side of things. Not so. As part of its runner-up prize, RFA received 10 hours of recording time at Studio Crash and a distribution package from DiscMakers.
The other acts in the finals each won prize packages from other companies in the regional music industry, including Tri State Indie, Charterhouse Music Group, R&M Music Studios, Awesome Dudes Printing, Fireball Printing and Gigspots. One of the other finalists were the sister duo Nalani and Sarina, who played a feisty set on guitar and keys, backed by cajón percussion, blending funk, soul, R&B and pop in a mostly high-energy performance (the only ballad they played was also the only song that really fell short in their set).
Also impressive was Elspeth Tremblay, whose performance was a bit shaky for various reasons – not the least of which was fans of the artist who played just before her congregating in the middle of the upstairs floor and chattering loudly, enough to unnerve any performer much less a newbie – but whose songs were total winners; delicate, beautifully structured and lyrically captivating. Originally from Australia, Tremblay’s writing addresses concepts of place and self, particularly a standout number called “The Tyranny of Distance” which a meditation on separation from friends and family. Though her performance had a few spotty moments like flubbed chords and unsteady vocals, it’s one I’m most interested to hear in a proper recorded context.
Valerie Broussard and her band played an instrumentally tight set of pop songs that echoed popular hits – one song drew heavily from Lady GaGa’s “You & I,” another bounced over a lift of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and its Chic-esque funk. Allie Carroll and her countrified group of players closed the night with a short set.
Beta Hi-Fi continues this week at World Cafe Live at the Queen in Wilmington, with the finals taking place on Friday, August 29th; information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.
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