Hard Rock Rising Battle of the Bands - Hard Rock Café, Toronto - March 8, 2012

By Vanessa Markov
Photos by Vanessa Markov


In 2009, Hard Rock Café launched an international battle of the bands called Hard Rock Rising in support of independent artists around the world. The competition works in conjunction with Hard Rock Calling, an annual festival held in Hyde Park, London, England that began only a few years earlier in 2006. Past headliners and supporting acts of these festivals include The Who, Aerosmith, Neil Young, Pearl Jam, and Paul McCartney, and the grand prize of the Hard Rock Rising battle is a supporting slot for the headliner of the upcoming festival.

This is the second year in a row that I’ve followed the Canadian leg of Hard Rock Rising, watching thousands of Canadian bands being whittled down to twelve in the preliminary online voting round. It’s very exciting to see those twelve bands from all over the country battling it out over three live qualifying rounds at Hard Rock Café Toronto, followed by the final battle wherein one of the three finalists is crowned the Canadian representative and moves on to the worldwide voting round.

This year, those three finalists were Be Astronaut of Montreal, Hotel Royal of Oshawa/Whitby, and Skellig of Vancouver Island. Just like last year, and I’m sure every other year, these three bands were incredibly diverse in style and even more talented, all supercharged with lethal amounts of adrenaline and anticipation, which made for one hell of a show.

Hotel Royal played the first set of the night that, even though the amount of times I’ve seen this band live is well into the double-digits, blew me away with a stage presence that I had only seen glimpses of before. Led by the maniacal Chris Hepburn, whose looks and character are best described as the product of a steamy night between Mick Jagger and Bon Jovi, the band didn’t play their typical dance-party-inducing blend of rock, pop, and blues at the finals – the music played them. And there’s nothing more exciting than four highly attractive musicians feeling their music more than ever before. It’s so sexy, so intense, so rock ‘n roll. The best way I can describe Hotel is like a rough yet crystal clear diamond that, once cut perfectly and professionally, will reflect light in such a way that will simply mesmerize anyone in its vicinity.

The second band up was Skellig, who I’m glad I got to see during the qualifying round because it gave me a point of comparison at the finals. Made up of a married couple and their son, another father and son duo, and a couple others both young and older, Skellig is a tried and true family band. Their Celtic-inspired country rock sound was more fun than intense, and their sunny smiles and 60s-hippy-like dancing are much suited to family-festival style atmospheres. Just like Hotel Royal, Skellig amped it up to the next level at the finals, showing everyone that they could have even more fun than thought possible, and the result was envy-inducing. Could you imagine being on stage, rocking out with your mom? How badass is that?

The champions of the night were Be Astronaut, a creative three-piece from Montreal that I was beyond excited to meet and see live. When I heard that they won their qualifying round, I went online to scope ‘em out and immediately felt this strong gravitational pull sucking me into every note. It was love at first listen. For the first time in quite a while, my full attention was commanded as I listened to their entire EP, and then again, and again, and again…until I started waking up with their songs stuck in my head. Live, guitarist Guillaume Théroux’s vocals are (impressively) exactly as recorded, and his modest, heavily accented stage banter added a friendly, lovable charm to the otherwise serious-looking bunch. I can’t really pinpoint a genre of rock for these guys other than I feel like their tunes belong on rotation at the hottest rock clubs in the country, and I bet it won’t be long until that happens.

I’ve noticed that a lot of people in the industry are against band competitions because it supposedly pits musicians against one another, but I don’t really see that happening among bands that have any common sense at all. One thing I’ve learned about Hard Rock Rising is that, while winning the grand prize is a thrilling opportunity, there are really no losers. Bands are provided with priceless advantages like having their music downloaded by hundreds and even thousands of voters, meeting and building relationships with bands from other cities, and interacting with professional judges who usually have more to offer than a winning score. I personally watched Hotel Royal’s stats soar throughout the voting period, and the show offers have been pouring in nonstop since they won the qualifying round. For these reasons, I highly recommend this competition to all bands seeking new ways to promote themselves and network, all while having the time of their lives at the legendary Hard Rock Café. Nobody knows how to party like a rock star like Hard Rock staff and patrons!
Worldwide voting beings in early April, with 86 bands from 86 cities competing for a chance to open for Bruce Springsteen at Hard Rock Calling 2012. Check the Hard Rock website for more details, and to find out how you can support 2012’s Canadian representative, Be Astronaut.