Rock Week 2024 is now in its 37th year! Starting in 1986 at Windsor Arts Centre, hosted and organised by Graham Steel of Graham Steel Music Company (GSMC). Anyone who meets Graham quickly gets to know that bringing original, live, local music to the fore is his passion and raison-d’etre. I got the chance to take a look behind the scenes at Rock Week 2024.
I’ve got to know Graham by attending many of his events and helping out on a number of occasions. Our conversations undoubtedly are about music, and bands old and new. However, I was still pleasantly surprised when he asked me if I’d like to be a judge on one of the heats for Rock Week 2024! My first thoughts were excitement, quickly followed by ‘oh no, who am I to judge people’s lovingly crafted music?’ I took a step back. As Graham explained, being a judge isn’t about choosing your favourite band per se, it’s about applying a set of three criteria to remain impartial and professional. I’ll come back to these later.
Rock Week is a battle between twelve bands, three heats over three nights, cumulating in a final the following Saturday between the overall heat winners and the highest scoring runners up. The last eight Rock Weeks have taken place at the wonderful The Acoustic Couch in Bracknell, Berkshire, and is the perfect venue for four days of talented, local rock bands. It kind of has the vibe of the old Marquee in London, but in a larger space (and less sweaty!).
I arrived on Thursday 4th January, although not my night to judge, as I like to see all the bands. It’s great seeing the stage set-up and ready for the bands’ thirty minutes slot. Slowly the audience started to arrive. The four, little square tables with scoring sheets are ready for tonight’s judges. Judges!! That’ll be me soon, but tonight my role was to be ‘guardian of the voting boxes’, where the audience use their token collected at the door to vote for their favourite band, which get added to the judges scores. I’m there to ensure that no skullduggery goes on, and that people don’t move the tokens between the boxes! As if!
Opening Rock Week 2024 was a two-piece called NUNK. Both seated, one using a beat-box with various sticks for different drum effects, and the other singing while playing a synth-guitar in his lap. Not sure if this is a genre, but my best description of them would be ‘country grunge’. A range of topics from celebrating being alive with I’m Alive, a semi-religious song about being stuck inside a dark box, in the desert, waiting for Jesus to come – oh yeah! Other songs included Turn Rat as there’s always one in the room; having a Bad day, then concluded by telling us the System is Wrong. It wasn’t until half-way through I realised the guitarist only had one arm! Kudos indeed for his performance. I wondered how tonight’s judges would score them.
Next up was four-piece band Blank Xpression who are a reformed postpunk band. Three original members, with a much younger singer, as pointed out by the guitarist who had interesting lights on his fingers. As you’d expect, their songs were high energy, old school (or should that be skool!) heavy, punkish rock. A wide range of subjects from Stranger with the devil in her eyes, to a song about a cat written so long ago that they amusingly couldn’t remember what it was about, except a cat! Overall, great entertainment, and they were having a blast onstage which filtered down to the audience. They should get good scores.
The third, and therefore penultimate band for heat one was The Mustard, a five-piece with a keyboard player. Keen for the audience to hear them, the band started before the drummer had finished setting his kit up! Laughter from the band and audience alike while he put the final cymbal in place, then they were all ready to go. The first song Illusion started with the drums, slow and haunting, joined by keyboards, and eventually the rest of the band, and beautifully sung lyrics. We were treated to some great songs including new single Back 2 U, an upbeat Tottenham Hale which was nothing to do with football, and last song Queen of All She Sees left the audience on a high. How would I score if judging tonight.
The final band for tonight was Darkmaterial, another four-piece who had great stage presence. The singer with a huge vocal range made me think of Bruce Dickinson meets prog’, although not strictly a prog’ band his deep, powerful voice would suit it. Songs about suffering the increases in the cost of living in Miserable Misers included a whole list of insults to those in power, or Juliet (not about me!) on not finding her Romeo (oh, maybe it is!), through to their single Lucky Charm about stripping mines and countries of their wealth, and finished with Riding On The Wave, a confident display of showmanship. Excellent, and would score high in my books.
The judges went off to the rehearsal room to deliberate, add up their scores and the audience’s overall choice. Graham then took to the stage to make the announcement. ‘And tonight’s winner is……………Darkmaterial!’