Last night was my third time sitting on the judging panel of World Cafe Live‘s annual Beta Hi Fi finals, and the competition was impressive as ever. A half-dozen acts from the Philadelphia area took to the stage over the course of the night, all of whom had won their slot from audience votes earlier in the week, and the room was abuzz with fans, friends and family members rooting for their faves.
Along with my fellow judges – Pat Rapa, music editor at City Paper, and Stephanie Seiple, founder of Tri-State Indie – I had the tricky task of helping make sense of the melee, and doing so without being overly influenced by the minor cadre of intense dudes in Riley Road t-shirts who stared us down at constant intervals over the course of the evening.
As it happened, the Phoenixville trio did run away with top honors – not because any of us were worried about mob justice – but because the young band flat-out rocked. Their raw electric blues thing was tightly modeled after the Jimi Hendirx Experience, not only in structure and sound, but also spirit. Riley Road tackled Jimi’s “Red House,” for instance, taking substantial liberties as far as phrasing, pace, instrumental solos and overall duration. This wasn’t a faithful-to-the-original rendition in the least, and some might call that blasphemy. But by embellishing things and putting their own spin on the classic, they were actually more faithful to Jimi than a note-for-note cover might have been. The rest of the set was original material from their self-titled EP – power blues rock that was full of rough, rumbling bravado and intense musicianship. Occasionally a guitar solo wandered too long, or a drum fill got too complex, but as my fellow judges and I agreed, if our biggest concern is that the band is just too talented, that’s not a bad problem for them to have.