The Peak Performance Project Showcase #1 @ The Red Room -- 09/09/10

The Peak Performance Project is a multi-year contest in which The Peak, along with Music BC, picks 20 BC musicians/bands a year and makes them stars.
Last year it was won by We Are The City, and they have barely slowed down since winning. This year it seems like the competition is a lot tougher; at least half the bands I have either liked before the contest, or have grown to like because of it. I definitely do not envy the judges on who should take it come November.
Part one of the project was a rock & roll boot camp where they went on a week long retreat where industry pros helped them refine their craft. Phase two is a series of shows at The Red Room, four artists a night for five weeks, each playing a 45 minute set, which includes a cover of a classic Canadian song. I always love it when bands play covers live, so that is one aspect I am definitely looking forward to. That, and seeing who everyone picks (I am going to keep a running tally on how many Neil Young and Leonard Cohen songs we get).

Going into the first showcase, there were two artists I was looking forward to seeing. The first of which being Jess Hill, whose voice I had fallen in love with the minute I heard "Orchard" on The Peak. She came out to kick the whole event off with an a capella song, only aided by stomps & claps, that really let her powerful voice shine. The band, which featured an electric upright bass and James Lamb on guitar, then kicked in for "Orchard" and were with her for the rest of the set. Her sound was sort of a folk sound, with a bit of an alt-country twinge, but it wasn't without an edge, or a bit of darkness to some of the songs. The style definitely played to her strengths, and she seemed to have a great sense of storytelling to the songs. Near the end she broke out into another a capella song, her commanding voice taking hold of the crowd (except for the annoying people in the back who talked the whole night) and then the band kicked in for a really incredible song, which I wish I got the name of. She also had a pretty good stage presence, confident in what she was doing, but also very appreciative to the crowd; slightly shy without being awkward at all.
For her cover, she explained that she didn't want to go for the obvious choice of Joni Mitchell, so decided to pick someone who shared her birthday. And then launched into "Cuts Like A Knife" by Bryan Adams. The fun part about covers is seeing an artist making it their own, and she not only did that, but I think I liked her version better than the original.
Going in to her showcase set, I had already liked her from the album, but after the set? Wow, just wow. She had definitely secured her spot in who I think should be the top five.

Next up was Bodhi Jones, who was actually in the project last year, and made it in for the second year. His sound was a little more of a folk-pop sound, and he definitely wasn't bad, but he just seemed to be missing a certain something. A few of his songs sounded a bit too similar and while they were not bland, they just kind of... were there. He did, though, look completely natural up on stage, and that was probably due to his relentless live playing, as he can often be found busking in Vancouver. An effortlessness surrounded him which did add to his performance.
There was one song near the end where he was joined by a cellist (whose name I am blanking on, but I believe she played with Broken Social Scene at Sasquatch) for a really emotional song about an addict friend, which was definitely the best of the set. Before his cover he mentioned that he didn't like playing them too much, and then went into "Old Man" by Neil Young (one), and did a decent version of it, but didn't really make it his own or anything. Much like his whole set, it was good, and he is an admirable player, but he was just missing something.

Vince Vaccaro was the other act I as interested in seeing, having been an idle fan of his for a few years. Meaning I have caught him live once for a free show, and have enjoyed his stuff on the radios, but never quite got around to picking up an album. The first thing that struck me was his energy. The man ran around stage like a squirrel with ADD, going into the crowd, even, barely slowing down for a minute. And the energy translated really well to playing live. For the beginning of his set, he had the electric out, and his sound seemed to be a bit more funk-infused; his Boot Camp Challenge song (which was to write a song around the title "Last Night") had a downright reggae flavour to it, but it was when he brought out the acoustic that I really got into it. Not to sound like "that guy", but I think I like his earlier material better, with songs like Heart & Hands, which he didn't play, having more of an East Coast Rock sound, something that you don't find much here (for obvious reasons). He did touch on that aspect of his sound, though, when he pulled out his cover song, "Uprising Down Under" by Sam Roberts -- which made me wonder how "classic" the song has to be. Don't get me wrong, that's one of my favourite Sam Roberts songs, but it is from four years ago. In any case, the beginning half of the song sounded almost identical, with Vaccaro playing softly on his guitar. But then the rest of the band kicked in to give the end a more rocking vibe, making it their own. It was quite a good set, and while I may not put Vaccaro in my top five, he would easily make the top ten.

Finally, wrapping up the night was Acres of Lions. I had heard a bit of them before the show, and to be blunt, I wasn't really into what I had heard, as it seemed to be a bit more pop-punk. But I had heard second-hand that their live show was fun, so I was open to it. And that it most certainly was. They, too, were full of energy, and effortlessly got the crowd into it and moving. Though they also had a little lack of diversity in their set, with most of their songs sounding like variations of the same. At one point, however, they mentioned something about a cancelled TV show before going into a song, then part way through, I think confirming that it was Firefly. I am not completely sure on that, but if it was... they earn major points from me. They also earn points for their choice of cover, "Never Surrender" by Corey Hart.
I'm not sure it's anything I'd want to listen to on a regular basis, but they did put on one hell of a live show, I'll give them that.

All around good performances, but for me, Jess Hill won the night. Best cover for sure, and as tough as it is to call, probably the best set. Next week is going to be a good one, and will be nigh impossible to judge, as there is Aidan Knight, Yes Nice, Debra Jean and Parlour Steps. Can't wait!