I can think of only a few truly hilarious things that have ever happened during Boston’s 25th annual Rock ’N Roll Rumble. There was Gang Green’s famous trashing of the synthesizer while covering ’Til Tuesday’s " Voices Carry " in 1985. There was the pub-rock band Uncle Betty, who made it to the 1989 final and opened all three of their sets with Styx’s " Renegade. " And there was Slughog engaging in an actual rumble with a few overexcited audience members in 1995, the same year in which a once-famous local DJ (and Rumble judge) was caught throwing up in the audience at the Paradise.
But all of those stunts were outclassed by the one pulled in the Rumble final at the Middle East last Thursday by the Dresden Dolls, a band who’ve never been accused of being especially humorous. Their college-radio hit " Coin Operated Boy " was interrupted by a spectral, ax-wielding figure in a black body suit who identified himself as the infamous " Rumble Curse " and sentenced the Dolls to an eternity of suburban opening gigs if they won. Frontwoman Amanda Palmer fended him off with an oversized copy of the first ’Til Tuesday album, and the song picked up precisely where it had left off.
My guess is that they wouldn’t have done that bit if they weren’t pretty sure they were going to win, which they did. But the gag was notable for a couple of other reasons: after 25 Rumbles, the Dresden Dolls are only the third female-fronted band ever to win (’Til Tuesday came first, then the Dirt Merchants), and the first non–guitar band to ever take it. And unless the past two years’ winners, Bleu and the Gentlemen, pull something together, the Dolls could well be the first mainstream success to come out of the Rumble since ’Til Tuesday won it a whopping 20 years ago. More to the point, they’re one of the few bands I’ve ever fallen in love with based on a Rumble set.
I’ll admit that I’d drawn too many conclusions from the band’s art-schoolish image, especially after Palmer and drummer/partner Brian Viglione re-created a famous half-naked John Lennon/Yoko Ono photo in the Noise last year. But their personality on stage had nothing trendy about it; they were cerebral, exotic, and invitingly emotional. And the Rumble joke aside, they don’t do anything theatrical on stage — it’s Palmer’s throaty singing that carries the feelings and the intrigue. She’s also a muscular pianist, and given Viglione’s flair for tricky, Bill Bruford–ish polyrhythms, they’ve got a foot in the prog-rock camp as well. If they do move into the national arena, they’ll also break a second curse: the one that makes un-hip out-of-towners think that all Boston bands sound like Godsmack.
If this year’s Rumble demonstrated anything, it was the number of widely different factions that now exist within the local scene. Since I’ve gravitated toward the Abbey in the past year, I went in ready to cheer for the Downbeat 5 and Heavy Stud, who were the only representatives of that club’s neo-garage scene in the event this year (notably absent were the Coffin Lids, Dents, and Red Chord). Heavy Stud didn’t make it past the prelims, but the DB5 rocked their way into the semis (held May 16 and 17) and played what has to be the best and only Shangri-Las cover (the ridiculously catchy " Dum Dum Ditty " ) in Rumble history. Another personal favorite, Blake Hazard, also made the semis, and she played a rare full-band show. Although she made the tactical error of stacking the loudest songs toward the opening, her set would likely have gotten her into the final if the competition hadn’t been so fierce. As a judge on her night (May 17), I had Dresden Dolls and Apollo Sunshine tied for first, with Hazard just a few points behind. Way less impressive was the night’s fourth semifinalist, Kingsize, who seemed to be trying hard (and unsuccessfully) to sound like the Stooges instead of Creed.
But who knew that any local bands were into an ’80s new-wave revival? Yet there it was in the persons of the Good North, who made the Monday-night semi. They reminded the kids of Interpol, they reminded the old-timers of Echo & the Bunnymen, and they reminded me of the New Models, a local band I never liked much. Baby Strange also qualified as a copy of a copy: though I doubt they ever sat down and said, " Let’s sound like the Strokes, " both bands share some obvious glam-punk reference points (yes, we noticed that Baby Strange took their name from a T. Rex song). Still, their set at the final was fun and spirited and needed only a few memorable tunes (and a less muddy sound mix) to put them over the top. It was left to major-label guest band Vendetta Red to show how lame a punk retread can be.
Finally, there was Apollo Sunshine, the other band who blew me away. I can’t claim they were completely original either, but I’ve never seen an outfit borrow from so many of my personal favorite cult bands: bits of Jellyfish, early and jittery XTC, Guided by Voices, and the entire Elephant Six roster, all blended into a wide-eyed ’60s pop setting with some Flaming Lips weirdness in the staging. Aligning oneself in that direction hasn’t made many bands rich and famous, but it sure sends us jaded critics home happy.