The stage was set for Rockn’ to Lockn’ on a chilly night at Sprint Pavilion. The mid-Spring classic — as advertised by the promoters — took place Saturday and was meant to give the perception of summer and, more significantly, festival season on the horizon. Not many people dawned the standard no shirt, no shoes, no problem festival gear that Lockn’-goers are familiar with as temperatures got down in the low 50s. Most opted to add on particular blanket or shawl, perhaps thinking of the time in August when they’d be dancing on top of it in the summer heat, surrounded by thousands of like-minded festival goers all having the time of their lives.
Rockn’ To Lockn’ is an annual event in which Virginia bands compete to win a slot on the Lockn’ Music Festival lineup, the yearly festival that takes place in Arrington, Virginia. All of these bands share a similar desire — most aren’t signed to a label and are looking for that one chance to appear on the big stage and break through as a prominent band. These six bands had already competed through two rounds of competition with Saturday night being the third and final chance to show the best they had. Each had 30 minutes to prove themselves. There was nothing to leave behind, every band had to bring their A-game and only three would win the chance to play at Lockn’. The audience were the ones to make the final vote.
The music started at 5 p.m. with a jam band named Surprise Attack. For showgoers standing in the scattered crowd — most of whom were stagnantly standing or sitting as the majority of people were still shuffling through the gates — it seemed that Surprise Attack drew the short end of the stick. The five people who were seriously dancing in the crowd were obviously friendly with the band and hardly anyone occupied the lawn or fold-up chairs behind the pit. Lockn’ attempted to make up for this by encouraging people to vote early with the incentive of winning tickets to the festival through a raffle. Still, this voting system had its fair share of flaws. This was shown most evidently through the ease of walking to the voting booth to place a vote for a second or third or fourth band — it was hard to tell whether the bands were actually worthy to vote for, or if folks were just trying to enter the raffle again.
Short straw or not, Surprise Attack and their 44 monthly listeners on Spotify came to play. With only five members, they were by far smallest of the bands competing. They were also the only true jam band competing, which certainly played to their advantage. It’s difficult for a jam band to distance themselves from any other. The art can sound awfully similar between bands who aren’t necessarily masters of their craft. Bands who are able to do this gain a crazy following because of their uniqueness and likely have listeners in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. Surprise Attack may not be unique when placed against another jam band, but they certainly were against the five other groups in the competition. Remaining relatively stagnant the whole time, their own-stage demeanor was soft and so was their music.
Their jams were slow but deep and heavily emphasized the two percussion sets which included bongos, congas, mridangams as well as snare and bass drum set-ups. Surprise Attack was fine. They played off each other well and were clearly skilled — whether or not they deserve a record deal on the spot can be left up to debate. With no one producing the same sound coming after them and voters who were eager to cast away their decision in exchange for an unlikely chance to win festival tickets, they set themselves up comfortably.
Up next on the ticket was Audacity Brass Band. The ten-piece rap and jazz infused band was made up of eight horns — three trumpets, one baritone sax, one tenor sax, and three trombones. Out of the gate they established themselves as the most energetic of the bands competing. The eight horns arranged themselves side by side, often taking turns down the line blurting out some drowned out noise. Accompanying this noise was rap lyrics that to put it in its simplest turns, did not work well together. The best thing going for ABB — as they repeatedly made everyone aware to call them this — was that they must have advertised the heck out of this show. People with ABB shirts flooded the pit and screamed loudly, sounding eerily similar to the screaming trumpets. Say what you will about a band with a loyal following, but they certainly didn’t get this vote.
The most unique sound of the night belonged to Nkula. They topped ABB with an eleven-piece band but spread out to include more than just competing horns. Their smooth reggae and African tribal beats were far and away the most diverse sounds of the night. Nkula was also the only band to give the National Champs a shout-out — call it a suck up, but it’s always nice to hear again. Lead singer Ras Abel Mekonnen hails from Ethiopia and has a soothing voice which couldn’t help but entice swaying from everyone standing up close to the stage. The beat of the jams were heavy yet slow and the rhythm encapsulated the hazy and curious attitude of the listeners.
Following was Free Union who won the popularity award — at least from Spotify — with a staggering 815 monthly listeners. The nine-piece group were apparently playing with a horn section for the first time. Though the three people grooving away to their trumpet, trombone and alto sax were excellent, it seemed unwise when they started talking about their inexperience in front of an audience who controlled their fate. Nonetheless, that didn’t seem to faze them at all. With a jazz-rock foundation to their music, Free Union was the most conventional of the bands in terms of their appeal to popular music. It was an alternative rock sound mixed with some appreciated jazz and jam influences. They nailed it, however, and were the most steady band. They looked the most comfortable and didn’t speak too much to the crowd like several others did.
The next band, Chupacabra, spoke too much. They were an eleven-piece band if you include the four girls dancing on the side, each going backstage to grab a new light-up toy to dance with in between songs. The best way to describe them would be Sublime-esque. That kind of white people, beach reggae that sounds more angsty than peaceful. The congruent psychedelic solos would have been more refreshing if they were coming from guitars instead of a launchpad. Their long jams were frequently interrupted by the drummer screaming incomprehensible banter into the mic. Give them points for effort, they really looked like they enjoyed what they do, but not the best fit for Lockn’.
Last on the bill were Tony Camm and the Funk Allstars who were ultimately a P-Funk tribute band — and they embraced it. Citing funk musician George Clinton as his main influence, Camm and the rest of his Allstars wore funky costumes and occupied the stage with energy and rhythm. At most there were 12 people on stage, but not all were actually contributing. Two women danced and sung vocals three times. One other man jumped back and forth around the stage telling the crowd to “get hype” and “break it down.” Say what you will about funk, there isn’t much of it nowadays. What little contemporary musical acts are still producing funk deserve a lot of credit.
Not every band playing on Saturday was great, but every band undoubtedly played their heart out and made Rockn’ to Lockn’ extraordinary. Musicians are prone to off days or not taking every show on their tour too seriously. It isn’t often where you come across an event like this where people’s jobs literally depend on how well they play. As the competition and Virginia music concluded, Surprise Attack, Audacity Brass Band and Free Union took home the glory and anticipation of playing the likely noon slot under the scorching Central Virginia August sun, something neither they nor anyone in attendance will ever forget.