Baltimore's Love Riot outperforms 25,000 bands in Japanese competition

October 11, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Sun Staff Correspondent

Kakegawa, Japan -- Overcoming astronomical odds, Baltimore's Love Riot bested 25,000 other bands to take the grand prize in a major music competition that concluded here yesterday.

The subject of the song performed during the finals was contempt for misdirected failure. "You're always knocking on the wrong people, not the right doors, but then you're just killing time," sang Lisa Mathews, expressing a sentiment that could have been felt by those associated with almost every other band in the contest.

More than 33,000 songs were submitted from 27 countries for consideration by the MusicQuest competition and its organizer, the Yamaha Music Foundation. None of the artists had recording contracts but many had been playing professionally for years.

Every tape was said to have been listened to by a recording industry professional. The list was dramatically pared, then industry executives attended performances and brought a handful of bands to various country-wide competitions around JTC the world. Seventeen winners came to Japan for the finals.

Each of the two prior recipients of the grand prize have been Japanese. Before yesterday's event began, several people covering the local music scene said another Japanese performer would be chosen.

The judges, however, said they were overwhelmed by the hypnotic quality of Ms. Mathews' voice, the unusual setup of the group -- a violin and no drums -- as well as the intangible but powerful quality of its music.

"They were unique, but they had more than that," said Go Yamazato. "They had something that made them musically go over the line. There was [a sense of something] more behind what they did."

Love Riot's music falls somewhere between rock and folk. Its presentation differed sharply from other finalists, most of whom relied on traditional arrangements, with a singer center stage, and made a powerful statement shortly before or during the opening note.

The style was typified but the first group, Robert and the Rainmakers. "Hello," said lead singer Robert Maestri. "It's a good day to die."

Love Riot opened with Ms. Mathews lying on stairs to the left of violinist Willem Elzevir in center stage. The song began almost imperceptibly with Mark Evanko's base, then became more decisive with Mr. Elzevir's violin, followed by Mikel Gehl's guitar. Only then did Ms. Mathews add her strong voice.

"From the time the band started playing there was an unusual sense among the judges," said Jun Sato, another jurist. "We became quiet, we were captured."

Many of those attending expressed similar sentiments. "I've never heard anything like it," said Koichi Suzuki, 24.

"They [sounded as if they] have a nice soul," said Kensaku Ando, 19.

About 2,700 tickets were sold for the finals competition, despite a location about 155 miles west of Tokyo at a resort known as Tsumagoi. The resort, owned by the Yamaha Corp., is best known for grass skiing, go-cart racing (visited three times by Love Riot members) and more traditional athletic endeavors.

The concert hall itself was a vast, open shell, with a metal lattice-work frame supporting a roof and mostly glassed-in sides. Every aspect of the show was minutely planned, from the atmospheric smoke on stage to band arrangements modeled on computers by Yamaha technicians to allow for three-minute reset times between performers.

The total cost of the competition was $10 million, according to the Yamaha Foundation.

For winning the contest, Love Riot received $20,000 and a mini-Suburu car, which Ms. Mathews said may become the band's wagon. The alternative? "I guess I'll get it," she said. "This will be an interesting thing for us to discuss."

The money will be used to pay for studio recording time and to produce a compact disc. Three major labels have expressed interest in the band since its victory this summer in the semi-final round, which allowed it to represent the United States in the finals, said Yamaha representative Bob Stabile.

Optimism that this would be a breakthrough for the band was tempered by the judges, however. There hasn't been an international success from the MusicQuest series, or a predecessor contest.

"As you get close, you begin to taste it, but there is a long way to go from being here to being big," said one of the judges, Neil Partnow, of Zomba Music Publishing and Jive Records.

In the immediate future, the band returns to Baltimore -- and its day jobs -- on Wednesday (three of the four members have jobs away from music). Reality comes first to Mr. Gehl, who works the late-night shift at United Parcel Service in Hunt Valley. "I'll be punching in six hours after I land," he said.

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