road to nightfall
The Road to Nightfall isn’t a battle of the bands, but a showcase for the growing community of talented musicians in Chattanooga. That was Jonathan Susman’s vision when he returned to Chattanooga after moving with his band, The Hopsing Project, to Nashville for several years. It was in Music City that he heard about a competition called Road to Bonnaroo. Staged by a local club, it served both as an incentive and a showcase for area musicians.
When he returned to Chattanooga nearly three years ago, Susman took the idea to Carla Pritchard and The McKay Road to Nightfall, as it is formally known, was born. This year, 25 bands will compete for a headlining slot this summer and $1,000. And, like the young musicians who entered the competition before them, they too will make new friends, form new alliances and play for people who might otherwise never have heard them—just as Susman intended.
The competition also serves as a showcase for Rhythm & Brews, where many of the featured bands frequently appear. After scheduling the shows on an off night for the past two years, this year manager Mike Dougher has given The Road To Nightfall center stage for two consecutive Fridays and Saturdays beginning this week. The four finalists will face off on Friday, March 15. All shows start at 8 p.m., with bands playing 15-20 minute sets.
While the competition will almost certainly challenge the musicians, it’s also a gift for the audience. For two successive weekends, six of the best bands in Chattanooga will perform on the same stage, and the admission is less than the cost of a CD.
If some of the names are unfamiliar, this brief primer should help. The bands are listed in the order in which they’ll appear on the nights noted. A similar summary will appear next week for the final two nights of the competition.
Friday, March 1
Proclaiming “the time has come for the Gods of Rock ‘n’ Roll to reclaim this world from the bubble gum fluff of today’s modern music,” Blues Hammer returns to the blues rock favored by Brits and Americans alike in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Gary Bartley (keyboards/guitar), Brian Lessig (drums), Joe Meagher (guitar/lead vocals), Jeremy Montgomery (guitar/vocals), Keith Montgomery (bass/vocals)
Blues Frog & The Georgia Rhythm Crickets
While there are echoes of both “Beggar’s Banquet”-era Stones and early Allman Brothers Band, this funky, Delta-leaning blues band often comes closer to the slippery, greasy gumbo of the Lowell George-era Little Feat.
Joe Hartsock (drums/percussion), Chad Howard (lead guitar/vocals), Josh Baker (lead, slide guitar/vocals), Paul-Erik Bakland (guitar/vocals), Jason Arp (bass)
"We specialize in bringin’ the noise to keep people on their feet,” the band’s Facebook page says. Five-piece with “special guests” playing funk, blues, jazz, rock and R&B.
Brittany Ammons (vocals, tambourine), Justin McBath (bass guitar/vocals), John Rose (keyboards/trombone), Darren Self (vocals/guitar), Hunter White (drums)
Characterized (by them) as “the sound of stones struck together and sticks beating rugs, with harmonies,” Elk Milk’s music is a grungy, bass-heavy mix of The Police and Black Sabbath.
Isaac Houck (guitar/vocals), David Houck (bass/vocals), Ivan Garcia (drums)
Described on their website as “aggressively ecstatic indie pop,” the music they make is synth-based, punky art-pop in the mode of a band like Ra Ra Riot. Carl Cadwell and Josh Green have played together in a couple of excellent bands (Infradig and The Distribution). The Distribution may have been more of a crowd pleaser, but this little band is easily the most musically imaginative of the evening.
Carl Cadwell (keyboards), Stephen Nichols (vocals/guitar), Travis Knight (bass ), Josh Green (drums)
The Maycomb Criers
While they may be “a loud and rowdy Americana band hell-bent on total world domination,” they sound like rural bar-band rockers with a taste for Creedence-style down-home blues. The Criers are a high-energy, good-time band with an infectious sense of fun.
Jesse Jungkurth (vocals/guitar/harmonica), Josiah Lajas (vocals/bass/harmonica), Nick Randles (vocals/drums/percussion), Brett Nolan (piano/keyboards), Evan Melgaard (guitar)
If originality is the deciding factor, this contest will be between Summer Dregs and Elk Milk. But since the audience will decide, it’ll probably come down to Blues Frog versus The Criers.
Saturday, March 2
Rick Rushing & The Blues Strangers
Related to the late, great Jimmy Rushing, blues shouter with Count Basie’s band, the blues is in Rick’s bloodline and it shows. Soft spoken and genial he may be, but put a guitar in his hand and he controls the room.
Rick Rushing (vocals/guitar), Adam Russell (bass/rhythm guitar), Steve “Chief” Muse (drums)
Straddling the line between punk and prog, Rigoletto are yet another talented group of musicians schooled at Covenant College. “There is value in changing people’s lives and in creating pure beauty,” said guitarist David Griffis. The result is accessible art rock with a thunderous bottom end.
David Griffis (lead guitar), Corey Snipes (vocals/rhythm guitar), Chris Williams (bass), Kirk Ellis (drums)
Currently second to Behold The Brave on Reverb Nation’s Chattanooga rock chart, Stereo Dig has crafted a rousing blend of Radiohead’s robotic rhythms and steely guitar with Arcade Fire’s chunky harmonies and widescreen production.
Jon Kirkendoll (vocals/synth/guitar), Adam Lawing (vocals/guitar), Sean Weldon (bass), Zach Turner (drums)
Sounding at times like Sade in dub, they’re currently No. 1 on Reverb Nation’s jazz chart.
Maria Jordania Sable (vocals), Josh Sable (guitar), Ryan Crabtree (bass), Chris Smith (drums), Golden Styles (keyboards), Michael Royer (trumpet), Josh Dunlap (sax)
Now with sweet, airy three-part harmonies, the expanded band also includes Jessica Nunn’s virtuosic viola. They were good as a duo; as a four-piece they may well be the band to beat on this night.
Dan Pinson (bass/guitar/vocals), Michael Galloway (guitar/vocals), Jessica Nunn (viola)
Ryan Oyer Band
Often tagged as a singer/songwriter, for a time he was, with an acoustic guitar and a batch of songs in hand. But now Ryan Oyer rocks with a band that blends Oasis’ burr with McCartney’s melodicism.
Ryan Oyer (guitar/vocals), Callie Harmon (guitar), Mike McDade (bass guitar), Gabriel Newell (drums)
“It’s like the Police and Trent Reznor got in a fight and ended up all twisted and bloodied,” said frontman Bijan Dhanani when asked to describe the band. Listening to them, it does sound as if Andy Summers’ guitar has been “bloodied and twisted.”
Bijan Dhanani (vocals/guitar), Kip Smith (bass), Nate Smith (drums)
Handicapping this lineup is impossible. This evening is the local live-music bargain of the year.
The Road to Nightfall Round 1 & 2 • $7 • 8 p.m. • Friday, March 1, Saturday, March 2 • Rhythm & Brews • 221 Market St. • rhythm-brews.com
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.