And the winner is...

Juliet Hurwitt finds out what it is like to be on a judging panel

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!’

I arrived on Friday 5th January, although it’s still not my night to judge, but I’m soon approached by Graham as two of tonight’s judges are unwell and could I take one of the places? What tonight?! Now?! Gulp, okay! What’s the criteria? Graham explained: three categories; ‘Originality’, although covers are allowed but with their own take on it; ‘Musicality’, can they play their instruments; ‘Stage Presence’, how do they come across to the audience; marks out of ten per category. I’d seen two of the bands before and really liked them, but now I had to put my taste aside to watch and listen objectively. Only three judges tonight.

First band kicking off heat two was Risking Nostalgia, who were one of last year’s finalist. I was watching them thinking ‘I’m sure there were four band members’, when after the first song the singer explained that the guitarist was unwell. Luckily, the singer was a guitarist too, so they were able to perform tonight. A variety of songs ranging from his goddaughter’s heartache in Love is Blind, to the drudgery of living in London. A good mix of softer through to high energy moments. Audiences are often reluctant to go to the front, but they soon obliged on invitation and the singer-guitarist went round to join them. A popular opening act which the scores should reflect.

Next on was four-piece band AlphaLine, with fifty percent of them being female; one a great singer who lulls you into a false sense of nice, before releasing her incredible full vocal range, and the other equally capable on the bass. The guitarist also doubled at the keyboards, on which he opened the set with, and frequently switched between the two. An interesting range of topics from Dualabout climate change, to Deluded a warning to Putin ‘you won’t be the death of this country’. Currently getting air play on the likes of BBC Introducing, their self-described blend of triphop, jazz/funk & alt psychedelic rock is well worth a listen and should attract a good score tonight.

The third band tonight was Luminaria, an impressive five-piece whose ages ranged from 15 to 17!  There was a large crowd encouraging them, including their school music teacher. Bravely opening with an instrumental that got everyone’s attention. The singer-bass player showed no signs of shyness as she interacted confidently with the band as well as the audience. Most of their songs were original, with a couple of covers thrown in courtesy of Weezer and Wolf Alice, but these didn’t detract from the high calibre of these teenagers. Well done and should score highly.

Closing heat two was five-piece Purple Grace, using two separate guitarists which I felt produced a fuller, more powerful classic rock sound. The singer concentrated on singing and demonstrated his full depth and range, with backing vocals to compliment. The whole band was engaged with the audience and moved around the stage (except the drummer of course). The current single Forever was fast paced and asks, ‘what could go wrong if we belong together’? Good question! Other songs were slow and soulful showing Purple Grace can do justice to an assortment of styles. A lot of boxes ticked for them.

Us judges went to the rehearsal room to deliberate, add up ours plus the audience’s scores, and compared notes. Interestingly, two were in agreement with the highest scores. Graham then took to the stage to make the announcement. ‘And tonight’s winner is…………… Purple Grace!’

Purple Grace

I arrived on Saturday 6th January for heat three, no longer my night to judge, but I like to see all the bands and help out where I can.

Opening the final heat was He Fired First a late replacement for a band who had to withdraw. A one-man ensemble that didn’t stop him promising he’ll be ‘as loud as he can’. Considering it was just him and his guitar he filled the room very well. His busker style songs included confessing to being a Son of a Gun and kept the audience dancing throughout. It’s always going to be difficult for solo artists to compete with full bands, but He Fired First wasn’t about to conform to normality. Excellent start to heat three.

Second band on was four-piece Green Embers who included a keyboard player, and brought us a more laid-back style of rock. They seemed to grow in confidence during their set, enough so that they played us some new songs, Don’t Want To Go and Sit And Wonder, which went down well. The songs were beautifully intense, with drums and keyboards intro’s working well together. They were clearly enjoying themselves, and this filtered out to the audience too. Great set.

The penultimate band for the heats was the Marc Woosnam Band who’s no stranger to The Acoustic Couch. Three musicians make up the band, who delivered a set full of varied songs with topics taken from life’s experiences, included Sin and Met Your Match. Marc has a crystal-clear voice, and sang with emotion throughout the thirty minutes. Marc’s won many GSMC awards over the past few years, and tonight’s performance set the bar high.

Finishing the heats for 2024 was Glitterwound. Larger than all the previous bands put together, eight members graced the stage. There is no category that they fit in to, describing themselves as disco-latin-funk-metal extravaganza and that’s probably an understatement! There was almost every instrument on stage that a band could want, and the musicians swapped around to play these. The singer became the drummer, as the drummer became the bass player, as the bass player became the singer, and then the singer took her place back at the microphone. Blink and you’ll miss something. But did they tick the judges’ boxes?

With the four acts completed, the judges go off to add up all the scores. Then Graham took to the stage to make the announcement. ‘And tonight’s winner is…………… Glitterwound!


Now the bands had a week to prepare for next Saturday’s final, but who’s the runner up also taking part?!

I arrived on Saturday 13th January for the final to find a queue of people out the door! Over one hundred and fifty people came to support their favourite band(s). There were only a hundred voting tokens, so many were disappointed. The Couch was buzzing and was full of anticipation for a night of great music. The Couch didn’t disappoint!

First on tonight were the runners up Luminaria, followed by Purple Grace, then Darkmaterial, and closing Rock Week 2024, Glitterwound!

It was fabulous to see The Acoustic Couch alive with people enjoying the band they’d come to support, and knowing that they’d discovered some new bands. That’s truly what Rock Week is about, so it doesn’t matter who won. So, it’s goodnight from me!

Okay, not quite. Who was your favourite? I found being a judge made me look at the bands from a different, more neutral viewpoint. I also felt very self-conscious as bands were trying to impress us to get the marks, and I’d like to have given them all full scores. The event is also about being seen and heard by a new audience, making connections with other artists, that respect it was successful event for everyone.

The judges have deliberated, scores have been counted for the last time, so Graham took to the stage to make the announcement. ‘Drumroll please’, and everyone slapped their legs. ‘And the winner of Rock Week 2024 is…………… Glitterwound!

Richly deserved and takes nothing away from the other eleven bands who performed their hearts out. Now you can hear them too via the links below. Enjoy.


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