The Battle of the Boroughs heated up on Monday, when five Queens acts out of 11 were chosen as the borough’s top picks based on a live show all 11 participated in on Friday.
During the show, held at the Greene Space in lower Manhattan and produced by New York Public Radio, acts performed one song each, and a live audience as well as online viewers voted for their favorite. A tally of those votes and more made over the weekend yielded the five Queens semifinalists: the Great Apes, Shelly Bhushan, Cate Song, Sinner Man and SWEET Fix.
To help pick the borough’s top band, watch the performances the five gave online, then vote, either online or via text (more information is available at the Web page listed in the box inside).
The Queens winner, to be announced on March 19, will have to wait until June 29 to compete with the winners from other boroughs. And the ultimate winner will get a headlining show at the Greene Space, in addition to a free recording session in one of NYPR’s studios and iPads and other electronic goodies from Tekserve.
But if Friday’s Queens show proved anything, it was that bands in this competition are so vastly different in terms of genre and mood that judging them against each other seems almost impossible.
Several of the night’s highlights, for example — including a heartfelt performance by country-folk singer Jefferson Thomas, as well as the shows put on by Latin act Una Via and singer-songwriter Tatiana Kochkareva — didn’t make it to the final five. Once all 11 acts were done, the crowd at the Greene Space had noticeably thinned, pointing to a fact common to many “battle” competitions: namely, supporters come in knowing whom they’ll vote for, before a single note is sung.
Which is not to say the five semifinalists didn’t deserve the nods. Definitely among the best on Friday was the top-five pick the Great Apes, who were first up with their song “Bones.”
The band genuinely energized the crowd with the catchy funk-rock song, while lead singer and East Elmhurst native Joe Trombino impressed with his dance moves, giving shout-outs to Queens (“Astoria, Whitestone, East Elmhurst, Jamaica, Forest Hills, Ridgewood — it’s all good!”). In the immediate post-show interview with MC Terrance McKnight, of WQXR, Trombino cited Prince, James Brown, Michael Jackson and Jamiroquai as major influences.
Long Island City-based singer and top-five pick Shelly Bhushan also impressed with her soulful song “All the Time,” giving one of the strongest vocal performances of the evening. The love song had a slow burn that built up to a great crescendo, underscored by Bhushan’s three backing vocalists. Also onstage were Bhushan’s husband, drummer John Celentano, bassist Harry Cordew and keyboardist Ben Hofstein, who played on the Greene Space’s lovely Fazioli piano.
Bhushan’s coworker, Woodside resident Debbie Barlok, who was in the audience with her husand, Joe, noted she and her husband had first seen Bhushan perform at LIC Bar.
“We became instant fans,” Barlok said. “She’s very talented. Her voice is a gift.”
Among the other top five picks, Cate Song, the only artist to appear on stage completely alone, gave an almost painfully vulnerable performance of “Half-Hearted,” touching on themes of love and loss. Afterwards, she told the audience she’s an accountant by day and considers Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Boys II Men — “all the classic voices of the ’90s” — her influences.
Rounding out the semifinalists, Sinner Man created the evening’s most elaborate and enjoyable harmonizing lines toward the end of the upbeat, grooving pop song “Everybody Move,” and the Killers-esque dance-rock act SWEET Fix (emphasis on the capitals) gave the most outlandish performance with the track “Make a Move,” which closed the evening. With his cropped platinum hair and entrance-making coat removal — revealing a tank top and very tight, blue and black jeans — lead singer Tommy Walker had energy to burn onstage, channeling Billy Idol and David Bowie in a performance that did not lack for confidence.
Speaking over the phone after finding out they were in the top five, Great Apes members Zach Abramson (bassist), Dominick Magnotta (drummer) and Joe Scatassa (guitarist) commented that they liked the other top-five picks, but refused to see them as obstacles on the road to the ultimate battle.
“We wish the best of luck to everybody,” Magnotta said, adding that all the band can to do is “our thing as hard and as well as we can.” Magnotta, who is originally from Whitestone, pointed out that in addition to himself and lead singer Trombino, Abramson has a Queens connection as well, since he lives in Astoria.
“We’re taking it home for Queens,” he said. The band will try to get votes in the coming days by reaching out to fans on Twitter, Facebook and via email, Abramson said. “We’ve been considering renting a skywriter plane to fly over Manhattan and Queens and Brooklyn every three hours — Staten Island if there’s enough skywriting fluid in the plane,” Magnotta jokingly added.
For her part, Bhushan said she’d be reaching out to supporters as well, and that she wouldn’t put it past any of the top five to win.
“I’m afraid of any of them on the ballot. You just never know,” she said. “Everybody is good at what they do, and music is the most subjective thing in the world.”
But, like the other acts, she’s still looking to the big prize: “I love to have the opportunity to represent the borough and it would be really cool.”
When: Through Sunday, March 18.