The Return of the Battle of the Basement Bands
A charitable area rock 'n' roll tradition comes back after a three-year-hiatus
Sure, the battle of the basement bands is an area tradition returning after a three-year hiatus. Sure, it’s a rollicking rock ‘n’ roll competition where four bands are pitted against each other, with their fates decided by the audience. And yeah, all the proceeds go to a great cause, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey in Hillside.
The important issue, and the question organizer BOTBB co-organizer Chris Dickson is most cagey about, is whether or not a certain Mr. Bruce Springsteen is going to come.
“I can neither confirm or deny whether [Springsteen] is going to show up,” Dickson joked. He’s less than serious, but he’s not randomly picking rock stars out of his hat; the Boss was recently featured in an ad campaign for the CFBNJ. And Dickson is friends with E Street sax man Clarence Clemons. (On Facebook, where the big man has thousands of friends, but whatever…)
But let’s back up. Dickson, along with his fellow Maplewood residents David Wagner and Gary Shippy, started the Battle of the Basement bands event in 1999. Held more or less on an annual basis, the annual concerts are no-frills affairs over-flowing with rambunctious soul where area bands rock out for a good cause.
“It’s an remarkably simple plan,” Dickson said. “Four bands, some beer and a gym, some incredibly low brow food, and that’s it.”
The bands play against each other, with the winner decided by audience enthusiasm (which is traditionally judged by an audience enthusiasm expert called an “applause girl"). Wagner, an actor, MCs the event.
“Mostly I’m just there to keep it moving,” Wagner said. “I’m not going to do any Hugh Jackman Oscar stuff.”
In the past, the battles were held to benefit Newark’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a national non-profit group that organizers volunteer homebuilders.
“We figured we were better musicians than we were carpenters,” Dickson said.
Dickson and Wagner said with pride that the concerts raised over $70,000 for Habitat. While they’re proud of their work for Habitat and still support the group’s efforts, they’re supporting Community Food Bank this year for personal reasons. Dickson and Wagner started working with the food bank after 9/11. They, along with Dickson’s twelve-year-old daughter and a group of her friends dubbed the “food bankettes,” are long-time volunteers at the food bank.
Because of the current economic climate, food banks across the country are increasingly in demand. Community Food Bank is no exception. During a visit to the FoodBank last fall, Dickson was surprised at how low the food stores had become.
“The drop-off in inventory [since his last visit] was palpable,” Dickson said. “It was like the shelves were bare.
Getting the battle of the basement bands back together to benefit the bank was the clear course of action. And his motivation wasn’t entirely altruistic; the battles are flat-out, house-rocking good times. The bands play rock music. Audience members mingle and dance. And it’s a proven draw—at a past battle, a blizzard didn’t stop hundreds from attending.
Sure, sure, sure. But again—will Springsteen show?
“Someone from Asbury Park has been invited. We can’t confirm or deny that he’s coming,” Dickson said.
The battle, featuring local bands Dark Horse, Juicebox, Emotional Rex and Walk the Dog, starts at 7 pm at the Our Lady of Sorrows gymnasium in South Orange on Saturday, Feb. 28. If you can’t attend, but wish to make a donation before the show, volunteers will be on hand to accept food starting at 6 pm. The door charge is $25.