Welcome Back concert showcases diverse student bands

Southern California has always been a hotbed of musical talent, spawning bands that have reached spectacular heights of success. So it’s no surprise that, as usual, the local music scene is flourishing — brimming with fresh sounds and genre-bending fusions.

Ground Zero’s Welcome Back concert, held on a damp and chilly Friday evening, showcased four local bands, all with their own special formula.  Hearing the music and watching the silhouettes of the crowd bouncing along in shadowed elation, it was clear that Southern California is still a prime area for young talent.

The night started with a local funk band, Down to Funk, who brought an explosive start to the show.  If the name didn’t give it away, the first tune did — unmistakable old-school funk at its core, with a splash of jazz influence noted during the plentiful instrumental breaks and solos.

Some songs flowed with a subtle, more low-key funk while other songs hit with a venerable freight train of groove. With Bernard Hermann-like horn arrangements blending with guitar, bass and keys to form a frantic wall of sound, the music conjured up images of Ocean’s 11’s casino-heist sequences.   Most impressively, though, was that it seemed everyone on stage wielded their instruments with the confidence that comes from having sheer technical ability, including their lead singer who brimmed with stage presence.

Derik Nelson Band hit the stage next, fading the prior funkiness away into a mellower, pop-based sound that was perfectly at home in Ground Zero’s coffeehouse-setting. If Down to Funk’s music hit the audience like a train, Derik Nelson Band’s sound was more of an oceanic undertow, slowly pulling bystanders into a sea of bobbing heads.

The music itself seemed closest to John Mayer’s recent work, though not as blues-based.  The set ranged from chilled-out ballads to more upbeat tunes shimmering with sped-up tension, but the theme throughout the set stayed the same: a blend of alternative pop and jazz influences.

Interesting breaks in rhythm and deft uses of contrasting modalities helped the music not become an indie-rock cliché.  It was hard not to be fooled by the jazz-pop sound, but you knew there was some serious talent when the guitarist ripped into a searing lick or the keyboardist flew into a head-foggingly quick jazz line.  It just so happens that the band can write melodies with a strong pop sensibility; although at times the performance sagged with predictable, slowed-down crooning, the instrumental breaks helped breathe renewed life into the set.

Tommy King — the eponymous group for lead singer/keyboardist Tommy King — performed next, bringing a slight shift from the jazz-tinged sets of the prior two groups.  Here, a more baroque-pop sound was featured, a self-proclaimed blend of soul, rock and “Italian pop.”  Baroque pop is noted for the classical influences in its arrangements, and many of Tommy King’s songs had this, such as the song “Get What You Deserve,” which had a seductive, almost gothic edge to the sound.

King himself, strangely enough, channeled some inner Smashing Pumpkins, vocally sounding quite similar to Billy Corgan in the best way possible.  The band’s set helped invigorate the audience after Derik Nelson Band’s brand of smooth jazz pop. Tommy King’s songs had a buttons-loosened energy, with crashing piano work and belted vocal lines that got people to start moving their bodies, not just their heads.  This was rock music, without a doubt, which was something that couldn’t necessarily be said of the earlier two groups.  Nothing was groundbreaking, and, at times, songs seemed to fuse into one piano-rock-y mass, but the performance was largely satisfying.

Throughout this concert, the music had been at times energized, other times more laid-back, but the audience hadn’t been quite sucked into the performances fully. There were those devoted friends right within saliva-range of the musicians, but for the most part it was a mulling, casual crowd that filled the dance floor.

Pinot changed that.

It was perhaps fitting that the band took such a long time to prepare – there was a nearly unbearable wait, interrupted by eardrum-shattering squeals of feedback – because when they arrived, boy, did they arrive.

Gone was the mellow.  Gone was the sense of indie sophistication.  What the audience got, however, was a band that was simply on another energy level — another energy universe, even.

The familiar funk aspects were all there: the blaring horns, the groovy shifting guitar and bass lines, the keyboard, but this wasn’t restrained in the least.

More than anything, the band burned with self-confidence. Its bomb-drop percussion (drum fills galore!) and tunes that were headbang-ready, all lead by a front man who commanded the stage from the get-go.

It’s easy to say that Pinot stole the night, absolutely demolishing the venue with its unbridled, straight-for-the-jugular ecstasy.  At one point the band led the audience in a crescendo of “Awwwwww sh*t!” and then busted out a tune with the primary lyric of “P-I-N-O-T, gonna f– you up”.

Musical maturity?  Maybe not.  But those who were in Ground Zero a little past 10 p.m. got a hell of a treat — true rock that created not only a show but a party.  But this was still only one quarter of a fantastic concert that, if anything, was reassuring for the quality music that was being born right here, right now, at the University of Southern California.