Local bands vie for a shot at Wakarusa

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Francie Johnson

On any given night, Tuscaloosa bands The Doctors and The Lawyers and Mother Funk can be found playing for a crowd of drunk, sweaty college students at a local bar. Fast-forward to this summer, though, and you might just see them on stage at Wakarusa Music Festival, thanks to a nationwide contest called the Waka Winter Classic.

“I’ve known about Wakarusa for a long time,” Josh Ferrell, recent University of Alabama graduate and lead vocalist for Mother Funk, said. “For me, it’s a personal thing. Just to see my name on this lineup with some of my favorite musicians ever – what an accomplishment it would feel like to be part of something like that.”

Each year, the Waka Winter Classic tour travels to cities across the nation in search of bands to perform at Wakarusa Music Festival, a four-day event held in early June at Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Ark. This year marks the 11th annual Wakarusa Music Festival and the eighth annual Waka Winter Classic.

Beginning in early January, the Waka Winter Classic tour hit 16 cities nationwide, with Birmingham as its second-to-last stop. Up to five bands compete at each location, and one winning band from each city will play at Wakarusa this summer. The show’s tickets also serve as ballots, and audience members can vote for their favorite band at any point during the night.

(See also “Rockin’ the Haus: Local artists create underground music scene“)

Mother Funk and The Doctors and The Lawyers applied for the contest by submitting an electronic press kit and music samples on ReverbNation, an online music platform for independent artists to promote and distribute their music. A couple of days later, both bands received email confirmations saying that they had been selected for the competition, along with Huntsville-based Post War, Decatur-based The Wheelers and Birmingham-based True Blue.

“We weren’t really confident when we applied,” Chris Wilhelm, lead guitarist for The Doctors and The Lawyers, said. “So many people had already applied, and we were applying so late.”

Mother Funk applied to play at the Waka Winter Classic last year but never made it into the top five. This year, though, the band’s ReverbNation page featured original music instead of covers, which Ferrell said gave them a leg up.

“I think that the music has really developed,” Ferrell said. “Things just come together a lot easier now because we can identify with the kind of music we’re trying to play. It wasn’t a bunch of covers on our ReverbNation page. It was our own stuff. We put our own spin on it because we know who we are as a band now.”

Although members of both The Doctors and The Lawyers and Mother Funk enjoy performing in Tuscaloosa, they said the culture creates a less-than-ideal atmosphere for getting one’s music heard.

“In Tuscaloosa, you’re playing in bars for college students, who are really just there to drink most of the time,” Ferrell said. “Of course there’s people who come in and want to listen to you guys, but for the most part, you’re just background noise. People aren’t really there for the music a lot of the time.”

Tuscaloosa’s music scene often favors cover songs over original music, creating another limitation for bands striving to make it in the music industry.

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“When we play [in Tuscaloosa], a substantial portion of our show has to be covers,” Evan Brooks, lead vocalist of The Doctors and The Lawyers, said. “Otherwise people are gonna walk out of the bar, and you’re not gonna get hired back if no one’s having a good time. If we played at Wakarusa, we’d probably only get an hour-long set, and it’d be strictly originals, maybe one cover.”

More than just the setlist would change if The Doctors and The Lawyers were to perform at Wakarusa. Bands playing at the festival could potentially perform for an audience of 20,000 people.

“[At] a music festival, those are music lovers and listeners, and [the Mother Funk members] all are music lovers and listeners,” Ferrell said. “We think that we can really connect on a musical level with people like that. When you play for thousands of music lovers, you’ll inevitably relate with some of them. Who knows, maybe that’s all we have to do to take another step up the ladder.”

Even an hour-long set at Wakarusa could be monumental for a band’s career. In addition to performing for a broad, more attentive audience, Waka Winter Classic winners also receive VIP artist passes. This creates networking opportunities backstage with fellow musicians and music industry professionals, not to mention a great addition to a band’s resume.

“This is kinda the thing that’s gonna tip the scale for us,” Brooks said. “The Lumineers were playing at the Backwoods Stage, which is where we would play, for 500 people [in 2012]. Now look where they are.”

Regardless of how they fare in the competition, Brooks, Wilhelm and Ferrell said they agreed that just playing at Workplay is a prize in and of itself.

“It’s a huge deal,” Ferrell said. “Even if we don’t win, we got to play at Workplay. That’s a landmark in Birmingham for touring artists, and we get to play on that stage, on that equipment. That’s really cool.”

Waka Winter Classic will be held at the Workplay Theatre in Birmingham Thursday at 8 p.m. The Doctors and The Lawyers play from 8:50 to 9:25 p.m., and Mother Funk plays from 11:20 to 11:55 p.m. Attendees must be 18 years or older, and there is a $3 cover charge for those under 21.

(See also “Local radio stations provide platform for area musicians“)