Called the Tournament of Rock, this 64-group behemoth bulges like a battle of the bands on steroids. And with a total of $200,000 in prize money at stake, the Tournament of Rock promises to deliver the type of buzzer- (or in this case, decibel meter-) beating close scrapes, human-interest drama and Cinderella stories that keep even casual hoops fans glued to their television sets when March Madness unfolds.
Don't try too hard to recall Paradise Stadium's last major coup -- this is the operation's first plunge into the turbulent waters of concert promotion. In fact, Terry Nelson, who is Paradise Stadium in the way that Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails, will be making this cliff-dive alone. When it comes to band management, event logistics and scheduling minutiae, Nelson has been the sole contact, using his cell phone as an office number as he scrambles from radio stations to insurance brokers to sponsors.
Initially, Nelson envisioned holding the tournament at his own venue, a 5,000-seat arena that would provide year-round entertainment. But Paradise lost its initial site, so Nelson approached the city about the Liberty Memorial in March (Nelson continues to eye land bordering the Missouri River). He described his concept for a massive tournament that would run for 10 hours 2 days in a row, pairing up 32 acts, each representing a local high school, for 15-minute sets and letting a decibel meter decide the winner. The eventual champion (after several more rounds, to be held in other sites) would pocket $25,000, with Paradise Stadium making a matching donation to the band's chosen high school.
With Liberty Memorial locked in for the weekend of September 29-30, Nelson then had to convince 64 bands to jump into the pool and 64 high schools to associate themselves with the event. He ran into some skepticism from both camps, especially when the groups learned of the tournament's $500 entry fee.
"Each band received fifty tickets with their entry fee," Nelson explains. "And advance tickets are $16, but they only paid $10 for them, so they're making a profit with each sale. So with 64 bands with 4 or 5 members in each, I've got 300 salesmen pushing my product."
For the high schools, teaming with Paradise Stadium was a less risky proposition -- financially, at least. He promised that all participating high schools would receive a $1,000 donation regardless of how their designated band fared. However, there was some trepidation about being linked to groups with less-than-G-rated stage shows. To alleviate such concerns, Nelson has dictated that "all song lyrics be of an appropriate nature and free of obscenities," under penalty of disqualification and forfeiture of prize money.
All participating bands agreed to these guidelines, though not without some grumbling. "Who the hell decides what is 'of an appropriate nature,'" wonders Eddie Schubert of Full Feature, which represents Shawnee Mission East. "We just hope that no one can understand the deep satanic undercurrent of our lyrics."
After assuring the schools that the bands would stay profanity-free, Nelson constructed the bracket. He decided to eschew seeding, which led to some first-round match-ups that approximate Duke meeting Kansas in the opening game. Example: Thrust vs. Overture, 8:34 p.m. Saturday.
Farther down the road, a Jade Raven/Bent matchup in the Sweet Sixteen is intriguing, and while a physical manifestation of Bent's brutal rock would throttle the Care Bear that would represent Jade Raven, JR frontwoman Holly King remains confident. "It's all about feeling good about yourself so you can kick some ace," King says, observing the no-profanity clause even in pre-event interviews.
For the groups that survive the exhausting first two days at the Liberty Memorial, both of which span from noon to 10:30 p.m., another ten-hour struggle awaits at Swope Park on Saturday, October 6. Then the bands get a few weeks off to rest and rehearse their extended sets (in the semifinals, stage time bumps up to twenty minutes, then it peaks at thirty minutes for the finals). The Sweet Sixteen strut their stuff on Saturday, October 20, at Municipal Auditorium from 6 to 11 p.m., and then the chopping from eight to four to two to one takes place the following night, same venue, same time. Judging by past performance and fanbase size, Six Percent, Thrust, Shudderbug and Bent figure to be the bands invited to the final dance. Then again, it's extremely rare for all top seeds to advance to the finals unscathed (at least in NCAA basketball -- there's no real musical precedent for the Tournament of Rock), so watch for upset-hungry upstarts Urban Disorder, Six Year Sophomore, Barphyte and Scapegoat.
But the biggest upset of all would be for Nelson, a novice promoter, to pull off one of the most ambitious events in local-music history. "We have every detail covered on this," Nelson assures, concluding that he should be able to follow the schedule to the minute. (See www.paradisestadium.com/schedule.htm for this precise script, which has bands taking the stage at, say, 2:32 p.m.)
"This is going to be a huge event," Nelson says. "This is something that you don't forget about."
No matter what happens, he's right on that point -- people tend to remember unqualified successes and spectacular failures. And the Tournament of Rock, with its massive size and Tower-of-Babylon hubris, will be one or the other.