The Story of Battle of the Bands: The Characters and Moments that Made It

By Rachel Evangeline Chiong, Photos by Brenda Gomes

“It’s Battle of the Bands, where UofT bands go head to head,” I said to my friend, as I inched around the subwoofer for a good spot. “As opposed to ‘Battle of the Band,’ singular, which is just internal conflict.”

The lore surrounding the event is fairly simple. Battle of the Bands is a January highlight, which happens around the same time as Winterfest, a campus-wide reorientation that encouraged students to get back into the rhythms of UofT-life after the holiday break. Because the two ran in tandem they eventually melded, and Battle of the Bands became one of the main events featured in Winterfest and hosted by University College.

“Battle of the Bands is my favorite event of Winterfest,” Albert Hoang, president of the UCLIT said, as he gave out snowflake stickers by the crowded entrance of Lee’s Palace.

The buzz on the floor had been sustained for an entire week. Since the lineup was announced on Facebook, the hype grew steadily. Dorval was returning from last year’s show to duke it again for first place, this time with new guitarist added to the band. Basset featured a host of instruments from a cello to mandolin and female-fronted vocals, which had been missing from last year. Rocket Bomb and Newcomer stirred up hype online, maintaining a tantalizing, elusive air. The judging panel was a trio this time around, featuring two of members of FOMA (the winning band from last year), trombonist Vonne and bassist Will, as well as UC’s Felipe Santos, who is a music reviewer based at the college.

Early that day I had bumped into Kaitlyn Ferriera, the Literary & Creative Arts Commissioner of the UCLIT who was responsible for the event. When I asked her if she was excited, she said she was, but confessed that she was nervous that no one would show up. And understandably so. It was going to be a damp Wednesday night, and Bloor street was pock-marked with black ice and slush.

But come 8pm, the audience was the least of her worries. A crowd had filled the sprawling floor at Lee’s, thanks to the Rocket Bomb’s active involvement in online promo for the event, The Varsity profiling each band in that week’s issue, and the bands’ solid followings. The show barreled on its way to an upwards trajectory.

The first band, Newcomer, had the responsibility of opening, and they nailed it. Clearly loving the stage and lights, their energy beckoned the people all the way back at the bar onto the dance floor. When I asked the lead singer, Matias Gutierrez, what he enjoyed most about the show, said that the stage, a place where all the attention funnelled to the band, was where he felt most at home.

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Newcomer

 

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Rocket Bomb

Shortly after, Rocket Bomb snatched the stage in a whirlwind of pop-dazzle, integrating the crowd into their performance. They tossed Mardi Gras beads into the audience, jackets came off between sets, shades went on, and there was a lot of singing along. After the electric set, the bassist of the band explained to me that in Mexico, he hadn’t experienced shows like this before, and he was just so happy and to be part of something he enjoyed so much.

 

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Daniel Lewycky of Dorval

The crowd grew both in numbers and rowdiness when Dorval started. A smart contrast to Rocket Bomb’s party pizzazz, Dorval opted for spotlights, each of the three members having their own, which turned them into rock ‘n roll spectres. Charged with non-stop energy, staying still was not an option. Daniel Lewycky, the lead guitarist, trotted to and fro on the stage throughout the setlist. Off stage, I found Lewycky gasping for air, white dress shirt sticking to his back and black vest disheveled. “I just need to go to sleep,” he said, completely depleted of energy, but a broad smile on his face. Clearly Dorval had given it their all.  

Mystery had trailed along Basset all night, from the moment they carted in their ragtag acoustic instruments and the smartly dressed members mingled in the crowd. A cello, mandolin, violin, acoustic guitar, and suspenders, Basset created a reason for the audience to stick around. Without warning, lead singer Yasmine Shelton’s deep, velvety vocals echoed into Lee’s with the band’s rendition of “Feeling Good.” They capped the night off with soulful originals and injected sultry folk-undertones to pop classics.

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Basset

In the end, Dorval won. A shocked Lewycky took the mic, who collected himself and asked that all the bands squeeze on the stage so they couldpose single-file academy-awards-style and take a photo.

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Dorval

While covering for the event, University College had also conscripted me to take photos, which forced me to experience the show in a way that was atypical to isolated perch where I could take notes during sets unbothered. Instead, I weaved back and forth through the crowd, trying to maintain a decent heartbeat next to subwoofers, crouching behind ramps, and beneath the stairs stage right to snap decent shots of the drummer. Amid the process, I witnessed moments that I would have otherwise missed if I had stayed in a secluded corner.

I saw Newcomer’s bassist, Joshua Sofian, screaming and yelling during Rocket Bomb’s set. Noah Philipp-Muller, the cellist of Basset smiling up from his cello between lines. The drummer of Dorval, Adam Moffatt, abandoning his stool and standing for maximum hype. The judges’ faces glowing in red light refracted from beer bottles as they exchanged notes and whispered. How everyone’s cell phone lights during Rocket Bomb’s ballad created a galaxy from the stage’s perspective. How intimately Gutierrez from Newcomer sang into his mic through the other photographers’ viewfinders. Rachel Chen from The Varsity, screaming and roping everyone back into the pit when Dorval was about to start. And lastly, I saw Ferriera’s satisfied and relieved face as she sat in the darkness off-stage, filtered in soft blue light.

This is to say, no encompassing review of the show can do these moments justice. In the end, we remembered the small sentiments, and for an audience of students who had been steeped in academia, it was the respite we needed. That night reminded us that even in the bitter weeks of January, and among the weight of school and extracurricular responsibilities, we would make it out okay, with good friends and good music to get us through the year.

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