It’s dark and cold on a St. George Saturday in January. Jazzy’s, just about the only place in town, is having the Rumble. The headlights of sedans turn onto low buildings backed by a great red-rock scar cut into the volcanic black of a foothill. In the passing light, a cursive sign promises java, juice, and rock n’ roll.
For seven-odd years, Jazzy’s shadowy den has played host to this battle of the bands — an excuse for rural southern Utah’s hipster counterculture to congregate and enjoy the twin intoxicants of beer on tap and sheer noise under the pretext of critiquing the latter. I’m there an hour early. Outside, empty wooden chairs sit misarranged by another evening’s cigarette-talkers. A few solitary shadows of bassists lug amplifiers into alleys. Opening the door to warmer air and the din of chatter in the dim lights, I’m spared the $5 entrance fee by virtue of playing in the show. A black marker vouchsafes the back of my hand with a casual swoosh. My stomach aches and my mouth feels dry.
On the wall, a bill for this year’s post-election Rumble is lined by stars and stripes and crowned with a mock-Trumpian cap, the brim of which insists that we “MAKE THE RUMBLE GREAT AGAIN.” I suspect it always was. Thirteen small town bands, four consecutive small-town Saturdays. Thirty-minute sets. Three judges — a local radio host, a drummer, and a barista. The chance to hear or play something that nobody’s ever heard.
Tonight, me and my bandmate Kaisa Carlson are up against Telestial, Aura Surreal, and While We Last. I don’t know anything about them, but their bands have names, at least, and that in itself is intimidating. We get up onstage to do the soundcheck 40 minutes late. My guitar and my shaking hands cause a feedback loop somehow, and a deafening whine rips through the venue. A few people cheer. Someone comes up to the stage and tells us, enigmatically, that he’s pretty sure one of the bands — our band, he thinks — has dropped out of the competition. I nod in agreement and he walks away.
The spotlights kick on, and all the rows of round tables and strange faces disappear into black. During our set, my thumb dies suspiciously, and my partner’s asthma comes on in the middle of a high note. I try to pass it all off as experimental music, but I don’t think the judges buy it. The radio host and the barista are gentle, at least. The drummer, not so much. Such is the Rumble.
I had the chance to talk to Richard Curl, the bassist and singer from Telestial, the band that kicked our asses that night. For him, Jade Whitlock, and Alan Hutter — who’ve been playing together since July, inspired by the likes of Cursive and the Cloud Nothings — the pressure of competition tightened their rhythms, and they’ll be advancing to the final.
As for the next three rounds, Dune Lunes, Nevermind, and Shell of Me will compete Jan. 28; Devil’s Blessing, Chance Has Issues, and Cleo Feb. 4; and H.T.S.A.E.M., Robot’s Guide, and Sleep Dealer on Feb. 8. One band from each night will join Telestial in a four-way final showdown March 4. The judges are Grady Sinclair of the St. George News, Kim Bently from Jazzy’s, and Tyler Sevy, the drummer from last year’s winning band.