According to 23 local music industry professionals and the community, Oakland’s best bands were all in one place this weekend. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Awaken Cafe hosted winners of Mayhem Festival, Oakland’s second annual song and music video contest.
Mayhem Festival is a sort of online-based battle of the bands. Over the course of one month, more than 1,400 people nominated songs and videos from Oakland bands and solo artists, which were then judged by a jury of industry experts. This year’s jury included executives at Bandcamp and Pandora, recording studio managers, sound engineers and the artistic director of Oakland School for the Arts. Contest prizes included recording studio time, rehearsal space, photo shoots, flyer printing, custom design work and a slot at a listening and screening party at Awaken Cafe.
Awaken Cafe, owned by UC Berkeley alumnus and Mayhem Festival co-creator Cortt Dunlap, is a coffeehouse by day and music venue by night. In the evenings, coffee cups vanish, beer and wine glasses appear, chairs and tables are pushed to the side of the room, black curtains are draped over coffeehouse-y art in a far corner, and lights are dimmed to create a moody performance space in the heart of downtown Oakland.
For years, Dunlap has worked with Mayhem Festival co-creator Sarah Sexton of the Oakland-based entertainment booking company Oaktown Indie Mayhem to put local artists on Awaken’s stage. Mayhem Festival is their most recent effort to spotlight Oakland’s music scene.
Friday night’s listening and screening party at Awaken Cafe featured performances by the Jamming Nachos (Best Song by Under-18 Band), Ted the Block (Best Song by Solo Artist), Billie Gayle (Best Song by SF/Bay Area Band) and Waterstrider (Best Song by Band), plus screenings of music videos by Kill Freeman (Best Music Video) and the Seshen (Best in Show).
Friday’s headliner, Waterstrider, got together at the Berkeley Student Cooperative about four years ago. Now based in Oakland, Waterstrider is generally representative of the kinds of songs that did well in this year’s contest: sweeping guitar pads, splashy drums, epic lines, affected tones, spacious verse, a packed chorus and powerful lead vocals singing about tragic-sounding things. It’s contemporary indie rock: quasi-digital and conga-drum-eclectic.
Still, Waterstrider’s sound is entirely its own. Each group brought something unique to the stage Friday, giving a talent-show quality to the night. If the folks behind Mayhem Festival had a worse sense for event promotion, they might have named it something like “Better Know Your Local Music Scene Variety Show Extravaganza.”
Mayhem Festival highlights original music coming out of Oakland in the hopes of raising community awareness of the extraordinary things happening in the city. Prizes such as recording studio time and flyer printing encourage artists to use the resources around them. In these ways, the festival exists to nurture Oakland’s music scene by connecting artists to the community and artists to artists.
“Before Mayhem Festival, we thought we were really familiar with Oakland’s music scene,” said Nate Salman, of Waterstrider, before his performance Friday. “But we hadn’t heard about a lot of the winning bands here. The community is bigger than we thought, and it’s great!”
Oakland is home to a large and varied music scene. As such, every band and artist comes to Mayhem Festival from a different place. Some bands and artists are established local favorites and others are up-and-comers. Some seem destined for a national stage, and others, such as Jamming Nachos bassist Rey Aceves, are high school-aged grocery store baggers. It was an entire music scene distilled at Mayhem Festival 2014, and it was all Oakland.