A slimmed-down Club Wars welcomes new blood.

Rules of War 

A slimmed-down Club Wars welcomes new blood.

For the seventy or so bands that participated in the spring installment of Jim Kilroy's biannual behemoth battle of the bands, war was hell. Bloated beyond recognition, Club Wars III called for gigs almost every other evening over the course of two months. Given that many musicians in the hard-rock scene support their peers by attending every available show, that pace quickly became exhausting.

So for the latest skirmish, which starts Wednesday, October 1, Kilroy has crafted a small-scale conflict. Only forty bands have enlisted, more than half of them first-time participants. That makes the event feel more like an American Headbanging Idol search for fresh talent than a clash of established titans. The big-name groups -- the few and proud who can draw decent crowds even when not engaged in competitive concerts -- dodged the draft: Bent, Thrust, Boomstick, Penumbra, Kingpin and defending champs Audio Kombat Arsenal are all MIA.

"We don't care who else is in it," says drummer Ron Pruitt, whose band, (Flexible) Bullitt, is serving its third tour of duty and figures to be one of the favorites. "We don't care about competing. We play because we love to perform."

"We never thought about sitting this one out," says Eye Theory guitarist Mike Medsker, whose group promises to be another top contender. "These competitions are the best way for a new band to be seen. We will go out, rock hard and hope to come out on top."

In addition to its vastly overhauled roster, Club Wars IV differs from its predecessors procedurally. Crowd response no longer factors into judges' decisions because, Kilroy says, fans felt they had to hold back until their favorite act took the stage. Also, Kilroy learned from several recent debacles. After groups griped about having to scrap Memorial Day weekend plans to play a Club Wars gig in front of a sparse crowd, Kilroy now schedules around holidays, steering clear of Halloween. Kilroy estimates he had to turn away at least 100 underage fans when the Beaumont Club couldn't secure an 18-and-over permit for the last Club Wars final (not to mention the heat he took from bands who felt teen boosters could have bolstered their victory bids), so he's eliminating the issue altogether this time with exclusively 21-and-up shows.

Kilroy's decision to halt Club Wars' sprawl seems wise. "If I tried to do it too big and it flopped, that would hurt it for the future," Kilroy says. In keeping with the downsizing trend, he's considering bypassing the traditionally spring Wars and staging only one event next year, in the fall.

But though Club Wars might shrink, it's unlikely to disappear. Kilroy's Westport Meltdown, a July 2 noncompetitive, multivenue concert featuring eleven high-volume outfits, drew disappointing crowds -- which suggests that jaded fans still need the lure of musical combat.

"If it isn't an event, nobody gives a shit," says singer Dave Johnson, whose band, Everybody's X, will be a conscientious objector this time. "Battles are the best tool at our disposal. Once we get average Joes in the door, we can break down the idea that if it's local music, it must suck. Despite anyone's reservations about competition in art, and no matter how those bands ended up [at the Club Wars III final], the show was excellent by any standard.

"We need Club Wars and its ilk to get people into clubs for live music," Johnson concludes. "If you need to call it a battle, then fine, I'll fight you. Then I'll buy you a beer, and we can talk about how stupid battles of the bands are. That is, if you can hear me over the roar of 900 or so screaming fans."

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