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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

How To Band Swap

by Craig Silliphant
Published Monday December 21, 10:56 pm
The rules are simple: be cool, bring beer and no Nickelback

Band Swap X
Wednesday 30

Bright sunlight beams through Amigos’ window. It’s lunchtime, so the bar/restaurant is in day mode. People are eating lunch normally, largely unaware of the strange and wonderful musical antics that happen in the same room by night.

I’ve seen the daytimers wander in during Band Swap. In the bar’s Band Swap alter-ego, the lights are dimmed, the black window covers are up and there may or may not be a beer puddle or two on the floor. “This band is terrible,” the befuddled daytimers say. “Why is this place packed?”

“That does continue to happen,” says Alison Whelan,one of Band Swap’s organizers. “What do you mean you don’t know what Band Swap is? How are you even here right now? It’s been sold out for a month and a half.”

Sell out it does. Band Swap is a charity event where seven newly formed bands descend on Amigos’ stage before a packed house to throw down party songs performed on a spectrum from horrible to surprisingly awesome.

It’s become an annual tradition. Saskatoon musicians sign up to be placed randomly in bands constructed via the über-scientific method of pulling names from a hat. From there, each person submits songs that are also chosen from the hat. The bands have to figure out who’s going to play what instruments, then learn and rehearse the songs in 24 hours.

The next night, they hit the stage.   

Band Swap is 10 years old this year — a milestone for any event, let alone something that started from such humble beginnings. It was conceived by a group of musicians hanging out and chatting during a tour, including Whelan and her co-organizer (and city councillor), Mairin Loewen.

The event grew over the last decade. To date it has raised $35,000 for local charities.

“It’s something I’m very proud of,” says Whelan. “I’m proud of everybody who puts their time into it. I’m always kind of surprised and pleased when I hear people say, ‘when are Band Swap tickets going on sale?’ because I can’t believe 10 years in, people are still marking their calendars, booking the day off work, making sure they have a sitter — for that night and possibly the next day.”

I’ve performed in Band Swap myself a handful of times, and I’ve been at almost all of them, so Whelan and I can trade stories of glory and hilarious embarrassment.

We talk about the overall experience, getting around to the idea of tips for noobs.

“I’d love to get some Band Swap tips from vets!” says Chad Reynolds, singer/songwriter and Capitol Music Club open stage host. “Do I sleep? How many beers before you forget what you’re learning? When do you stop practicing and start focusing on dance moves and outfits? Should we perform volleyball style and rotate to the next instrument after every song? Which covers go over best, groaners or bangers?”

To Reynolds and all the noobs, here’s how Band Swap works — straight from me and Whelan.

Night One: Pulling Bands And Songs From A Hat

Each player puts songs into the hat, which are drawn for the bands at random. Song choice is of paramount importance. We all have our own taste in music, and part of this night is to choose songs that are fun and escapist, not necessarily something you’d normally listen to. They should be good, crowd-pleasing cuts. I’ve had to play everything from the Isley Brothers and Iron Maiden to Bette Midler, and I’ve suggested fun, kitschy stuff like “Highway To The Danger Zone”.

“[A good song is] whatever your notion of a banger is,” says Whelan. “Whether it’s a classic rock tune or a club jam — if it’s a banger, it’s recognizable within the first 15 seconds, as soon as the band starts playing. That’s pretty key. Sing-along factor is super key.”

Another song tip: don’t choose shitty songs to be a dick. It sucks to have to learn them, and it’s a show killer when the audience to has to sit through five minutes of a Nickelback song.

“No spite selections,” agrees Whelan. “We’ve actually issued a moratorium on Nickelback after that one year. There was one guy who came, and I know exactly who it is. He just put Nickelback songs in the hat because he’s the kind of dick that would think it’s hilarious, and it wasn’t funny for anybody.”

Day Two: Rehearsal

Once you’re in the jam space with your new band, it’s important to be cool. You’re in a band of people you know to varying degrees. Some might be strangers. You’re not the boss of the band, fining people like James Brown when a note is off. It’s meant to be fun, so don’t worry too much about your artistic vision.

“Bring beer,” says Whelan. “Band Swap captains are the hosts because they usually have a tricked-out jam space. They graciously take seven strangers, or five strangers, into their home for the day to make a bunch of noise. There was an expectation, the captains were feeling like they had to feed their bandmates and make sure they were full of beer. But no. So bring your own food, bring your own beer.

Also? “Remember to eat,” says Whelan. “When people get hangry they start fighting.”

“You also get your band and you don’t know what the instrumentation may be,” Whelan continues. “You might have someone that usually plays drums, but tonight they don’t want to play drums because it’s their night to shine on an instrument that they suck at. You get people that are really good singers but uncomfortable doing anything else. But if someone sings every song, then there’s another person who doesn’t get a chance to sing. You’re right, be cool. Be flexible.”

Night Two: Band Swap!

On the night of the big show, it’s pretty simple. Have fun and put it out there. Maybe watch your booze intake if you have a later time slot.

“It’s fascinating every year to see the transformation,” says Whelan. “You’ve been practicing all day with a group of strangers, well, not necessarily strangers, in someone’s basement or living room. You’re focused on getting through the song, getting your timing right or whatever. Getting the lyrics right; everyone’s reading off a piece of paper. But without really agreeing or planning on anything, I find that every band explodes to life when they hit the stage for the night. Being in front of the lights in front of a massive, cheering crowd transforms some of these people into super-performers. That part I love the most.”

And Whelan’s last tip?

“Expect to burn out.” She smiles. “Expect to maybe not want to do anything for New Year’s Eve.”

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