Summerfest 2013

Land the Big Gig finalists ready to battle it out

Independent Idols, The August, Hydra Melody each took different roads to get here

Photo credit: Angela Peterson - Band members Matthew Gomez (left), Jason Harari , Jordan Berlanga , Taylor Ferguson, Justin Berlanga, and Manuel Prince will play Summerfest at 6 p.m. Thursday.

| Posted on June 26, 2013

They're three bands with vastly different experiences. One has rubbed elbows with Lionel Richie and Toby Keith. Another is a young, aggressive, self-promoting road warrior. The third has struggled to rise to bigger gigs in the Milwaukee music scene.

But Thursday, the three bands — the August from Nashville, Hydra Melody from San Antonio, Texas, and Milwaukee's Independent Idols — all come together for the same opportunity: to play Summerfest and win a share of $35,000, thanks to the Land The Big Gig contest.

Presented by Tap Milwaukee, Summerfest and Robert Haack Diamonds, the second annual competition invited bands from around the country to submit audition videos for a chance to perform at Summerfest's Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard on Thursday.

Nearly 100 bands entered, and more than 89,000 votes were cast that helped narrow the competition to the three finalists. They'll each perform Thursday in front of fans, strangers and four judges: Milwaukee native and "American Idol" Season 8 finalist Danny Gokey; WLWK-FM (94.5) morning personality Danny Clayton; Summerfest's vice president of entertainment Bob Babisch; and Summerfest Chief Marketing Officer John Boler. First place takes home $20,000, second $10,000 and third $5,000 — and all the bands won an all-inclusive trip to Milwaukee. But in the words of Independent Idols' frontman Ryan Charles, "you can't buy this kind of opportunity. It's priceless." And it's a sentiment shared by all three bands.

The veterans

The August has been to this kind of band competition rodeo before.

The Nashville-via-Chicago Americana act won first place in the "Got Country Class" band competition last year, getting $5,000 and a July 4 opening slot for Toby Keith and Lionel Richie at the famed Greenbrier resort in West Virginia last year. The band got to hang out with Richie, hand its CD to Keith (who had the head of his record label check out the band's live set) and was introduced to some producers by George Thorogood's manager, who served as a judge in the competition.

It took years of work for that seemingly overnight opportunity.

The band initially formed in Chicago in 2006 (it has played Milwaukee before, at Shank Hall and the Up and Under Pub) and two years later scored a band-changing one-on-one with producer Garth Fundis (Alabama, Trisha Yearwood, Sugarland) through its manager at the time.

"He flew up to our show at the Metro in Chicago, and we had a two- to three-hour conversation with him," said August songwriter, acoustic guitarist and lead vocalist Jacky Dustin, 31. "He said, 'You definitely need to come down to Nashville....You've got a good sound, got good vocals and good songs — but not great songs.' So we were thinking we could get better songs by going to the songwriting capital of the world."

Dustin, along with founding members Wojtek Krupka (bassist and songwriter) and drummer Tim Good, both 31, moved to Nashville the following year, and in 2010 added electric guitarist Cameron Clarke, 31, to the lineup.

"It humbled us very much," Krupka said of the relocation. "After all the hard work we put in for five years on the road and recording and writing in Chicago, we thought we'd show up and people would be like, 'They know something.' Within three days you realize, 'Wow, we are at school now....' It challenges you to be around people that are better than you."

So members of the August wisely invited some of those better people to write songs together, and in the process the band improved its songwriting and enhanced its sound — "We picked up more electric grit and pop sensibilities with some twang," Krupka said — resulting in last year's contest win, and now, a spot in the Big Gig finals.

"We have so many people that are in the Chicagoland area that have been fans and friends that are coming," Dustin said. "So just playing Summerfest (for them), that part is really cool."

The up-and-comers

Hydra Melody didn't know if it would end up as a finalist for Land the Big Gig, but the San Antonio, Texas-based alternative pop-rock band booked some shows between Milwaukee and Texas for after the finals performance and lined up its own videographer, just in case.

Those turned out to be smart moves, and par for the course for a band hustling to make something of itself.

Hydra Melody formed in 2006, inspired by everything from Steely Dan to Green Day to blues and Latin music.

But after a few years the band "was on the verge of fading out," said lead vocalist and guitarist Jordan Berlanga, 25. Then 18 months ago, bassist Jason Harari, 26, and lead guitarist Taylor Ferguson, 21, joined the group.

"The chemistry was so undeniably there, we had to keep going," Berlanga said. Also in the band are original members Manuel Prince (25, percussion), Matt Gomez (25, drums) and Berlanga's older brother Justin (28, keyboards).

The past 18 months have been a whirlwind, with the band releasing a self-titled EP, playing talent-spotting festivals like the CMJ Music Marathon and South by Southwest and embarking on a 42-date tour in between bartending gigs and jobs for their folks.

"We have a great fan base around the country, so Land the Big Gig worked out for us because we had so many people on our side (voting for us)," Berlanga said. Furthermore, the band made business cards with QR codes to hand out to friends and fans — one code for accessing 14 free songs ("All the music we have," Prince said) and another directing people to the Land the Big Gig site where they could cast their votes for Hydra Melody.

Berlanga said that when he found out the band was a Big Gig finalist, "I didn't even know how to feel at the moment. It was hard to fathom winning something like that. It's one of the biggest opportunities we've ever had as a band. The minute I found out, I thought, 'Game on.'"

The hometown heroes

Independent Idols is simultaneously the hometown hero for this year's Big Gig competition — and the underdog.

The self-described "crunchy power-pop" band has been around since 2007 and solidified its current lineup in 2010 with Bryan Arzaga (30, guitar), Ryan Charles (33, lead vocals), Dan Morrissey (41, bass) and Tony Myers (46, drums).

It released a self-titled album in 2009 and a two-song EP last year, with another full-length album in the works. Idols hasn't toured aggressively, and not at all beyond the Midwest, but it has played Shank Hall and other local clubs and festivals. It played Summerfest early in its career, but only once.

"It's not for lack of trying or anything," co-founder Morrissey said.

Added co-founder Myers, "I've known (the Summerfest talent bookers) for years and reached out to them saying, 'We really want to play Summerfest.' I know everybody that they know is probably telling them the same thing. We submitted our CDs and everything...but just because there are so many people trying to play this thing, it feels like we're getting lost in the noise."

But its fans have been listening, and when the Big Gig contest happened, their votes helped secure the Idols' spot in the finals.

"We'll have a contingent of fanatical Idol fans in the front row being loud and rowdy," Charles said. "It's exciting to get to perform for them at this type of venue. This is the reward to them for their patience and support and determination to get us seen."

"We're ready. We've been ready," Morrissey added. "We've had our bags packed up for a long time."

Contact Piet Levy on Twitter @pietlevy and on Facebook at facebook.com/piet.levy.18

LAND THE BIG GIG FINALS

When: 4 p.m. Thursday

Where: Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard, Summerfest

Gate admission: $10 before 4 p.m.; $17 after

  1. lolalapin - Jun 26, 2013 2:26 PM

    Since when does less touring experience confer "underdog" status for a band competition? The playing field is based upon talent... and Independent Idols have the bases covered!