Feature: The Advantage
by brandon sheffield
12242003


Going too long without attending an NES rock band’s concert isn’t healthy. I think I read that somewhere…gives you hairy palms, maybe. Five months is very nearly too long – if not for The Advantage on the eve of December 19th, I’d probably be dead right now.

It was a cold, and rainy night in the Bay Area – I had returned from Los Angeles the day before, and was not just a little overtired. My car had broken into a million pieces during the trip, so I arranged for one Christopher Woodard pick me up in his almost-paid-for Volvo sedan. I would drive thereafter. That was the deal.

Braving acidic raindrops and frenzied christmas shoppers, we made a beeline for the Oakland territories. I’d never been to this particular establishment before, but it was simple enough to find. Just off the 80 freeway, turning left on 40th street, you’ll find a rather small warehouse. That’ll be it. A step up from the house/basement/used car lot where I saw the Minibosses, that’s for certain. They call the place the 40th street warehouse, and they’re not wrong to do it. But it had a sign, sort of, and the floor was firm. Plus there was a lofted bed over the bathroom. Definitely an improvement.

As per tradition, we accidentally showed up early. So early that the ticket takerettes assumed we belonged there, and did not ask for money. One hour and One half were ours to kill. Luckily, beer allows you to control time, so to the liquor store we went, at the suggestion of Brian, the 40th st. proprietor. Let it never be said that I don’t know how to follow instructions. The owner’s son greeted us in the liquor store, immediately offering: “whatcha looking for – beer? It’s over there” giving a directional nod.

Was it the way we were dressed? No matter. It was what we were looking for, after all. That and some chips.

Now let’s talk about drinking for a moment. Tequiza, it turns out, aside from having twist-off tops, is also a fantastically tasty beverage, with the flavors of agave cactus nectar and lime brewed right in. It’s smooth, goes down easy, and lacks the bitter tang of other yeasted malt liquors. I give it an 8.4 out of 10. Chris asked me to remember the name of it in case he got too drunk (recall – I was the wheelman, and he’s a gentleman who loves his liquor). So there you are.

Returning to the warehouse, I decided to give some money to the ticket-taking gals I’d brushed by earlier. “So…I guess I should pay you guys” says I, glancing at a glowing virgin mary in the corner. “Could you be a little more apathetic about it?” she retorted.

“….well….I don’t know if I can muster it.”

Hell, I thought it was funny. She didn’t seem to grasp the depth of my genius, but I got the ‘you’re an idiot’ sneer from Woodard, so I must have accomplished my mission.

Turns out it was only four bucks instead of the planned five – they were competing against The Gilman that evening. Screw that place – a band had spraypainted Bubble Bobble’s Bub on their walls at one point. How do I know it’s Bub, and not Bob? Bob faces left, that’s how. Regardless, they allowed it to be painted over by the next band (photo courtesy of Jesse, taken at a show some months past). Sure it’s their policy, but what the hell?

My pal Matt showed up with his girlfriend Sara, and together we hoarded the comfy seats on the left side of the floorspace. House left, that is.

And on with the show.

The plan was for four bands to play in an order determined by the headliner. The Advantage opted to go third – nobody wants to go last, 40th st. Brian says, especially not the headliner. People leave early, it seems.

Matt spotted the advantage fellows, who were set up at a table. They were selling their CDs at $5 apiece, before the show had even started. I got mine on the spot. They were gone by the end of the evening.

A chord was strummed on an electric guitar. The signal had dropped – it was time to begin the rocking out.

And yet - the first band was sadly rather inconsequential. I’ll not mention their name, for your sake, and for theirs. It’s not that they were bad, they just weren’t…interesting. Their rocking, while it did exist, was not the out kind of rocking. Matt’s girlfriend said that she’d totally listen to them in the car, maybe. But they just couldn’t cut it when everyone was awaiting The Advantage.

I was concerned that the next band might be equally dull. I’d spoken with the guitarist from the second band earlier in the evening. He seemed a nice sort, if rather young and curly of hair. Woodard was concerned; “you know the rule – the nicer someone is, the worse they are at playing music.” We braced ourselves.

Good thing we did too, because this band, Tenebre they’re called, shot some near-brilliance out of their instruments and right into our brains. Had we not already begun the bracing process, we might have been floored by it. We four friends looked at each other. Yes, those were highschool kids. Yes that guy was playing a standup bass. Yes the guitarist was tapping *constantly*. For those who don’t know, this is a two-handed playing technique in which one hits notes by tapping them with one’s fingertips, as with a piano, say. This is done on the neck of the guitar, and allows for incredibly complex melody, as both hands can play simultaneously, assuming you’ve that kind of brain.

Suffice to say, we were pretty impressed.

The songs were solid, though they played a rather short set. As the bass player was about to apply a bow to the thing, the guitarist, Max by name, announced that they would be selling CDs for $2 after their performance. We all bought one.

Even 40th st. Brian was compelled to kiss his ergonomically pretty girlfriend during the performance. If anything, that is a mark of success.

A good band, this Tenebre. At the same time, they’ve a ways to go in terms of composition, and even further to go in the way of band-integration. The songs are all written around the guitar riffs, and quite obviously. But further study of bandmember-fusion indy greats such as Hella and Lightning Bolt should help Tenebre realize themselves a bit more.

There was another break. I was already out of batteries in my digital camera...taking movies in the dark drains it incredibly quickly. I sprinted back to the liquor store, bell-bottomed pants flapping obnoxiously in the winter wind. The black asphalt was wet with fallen rain, reflecting the light of the liquor store marquee back at me as I ran. The air smelled unusually fresh as I gulped it down during the run.

The owner’s son was at the off-green register now – batteries were a dollar each, fresh out of a nearby drawer. I bought four, hoped to hell that they worked, and made the return dash.

On my way, I encountered the fellows from whom my Band of Others had stolen the four seats, located house left in the warehouse.

“You’re reviewing the show, right?”

“You should review those Tenebre guys!”

“Oh I will. You guys leaving already?”

“No, we just ran out of beer.”

Nobody can leave without seeing The Advantage.

This Tenebre - they’re young – but they have a standup-bass-load of potential. I’ll be keeping an eye on them.

I re-entered the warehouse, brandishing my Garfield handstamp as a mark of authenticity. The Advantage was about to begin their performance.

At the Minibosses concert some months past, there had been a kinetic energy in the air prior to their playing. They’re established, and have a devoted fanbase, so that might be it. The Advantage have played…very few times. There was a sense of anticipation, but it was anticipation for the potential of this band, and less for it’s known qualities.

Let me explain something about this potential. Earlier I mentioned Hella. They’re a Sacramento two-piece drum/guitar band with an incredible amount of technical skill. The mammoth volume of sound the two fellows produce is simply astounding, and pure joy to listen to.

Spencer Seim is one half of Hella – he’s also one fourth of The Advantage. This is where some, perhaps most of that anticipation comes from. It’s probably why a third of the 60+ people in attendance came out. Spencer holds up the guitar end of Hella, but I couldn’t immediately pick him out of The Advantage players. He’d cut his hair since the last picture I’d seen.

While I was pondering this very question, the Advantage took up their instruments. The guitarist from Tenebre was in the front row.

From the first note to the last, they tore the house down aurally. Their live skill with their instruments is completely unsurpassed in any NES-based rock band. Almost every note was hit, and the arrangements were truly impressive to hear. In a recent interview, Spencer mentioned that the guitar and bass lines were taken by rote from the NES tunes they covered. But to the discerning ear, the falsehood of this statement is clear. There’s a good deal more soul, and a hell of a lot more melodious dueling going on than there ever was in the original NES tune.

The Advantage themselves weren’t particularly energetic though. What the Minibosses may lack in technical prowess, they make up in charisma, and forceful exuberance. The Advantage is visually laid back, but far more complex with their arrangements, and almost always on the mark with every note. And they play sober.

I’m not ranking here, I’m qualifying. Either one’s a winning horse, as it were.

You’ll note that in the videos, I tend to favor the drummer at times. There’s a reason for this, actually. You see, I figured out who Spencer was. And it turns out that this is what threw me initially. Spencer, guitarist extra-ordinairre for Hella, is the drummer for The Advantage. I felt like I had entered another dimension.

I never spoke to him – I never looked him directly in the eye – but I filmed the hell out of him. Guess I’m a journalist after all, eh?

I had to step all the fuck over their equipment to take the videos I got – and for that I am sorry, fellows. I don’t think I broke anything, but I was three Tequizas to the wind by that point.

Their set was long and varied – there were the standards of course, from Megaman to Castlevania, but there were quite a lot of curveballs thrown as well. The Super Mario Brothers 2 medly for instance, took everyone by pleasant surprise. In Chris Woodard’s words; “I didn’t recognize half of the tunes there by name, but yet I knew them by heart.”

There’s an incredible power in the musical dynamic created by this band. The guitars duel perfectly, without one overpowering the other (the videos may not reflect this, as I’m closer to one than the other). The bassist frequently uses the tapping technique, making him able to accurately represent the complex bass lines usually found in these NES songs, but also adding his own punch to it. Really amazing to hear.

The drums were solid – not the strong suit of the band, but even so, the most solid rhythm composition of any of the NES cover fellows (barring RISC, who used electronic beats). Many of these songs are written without drum lines, so this is one of the main areas of innovation for the NES rocker…and The Advantage performs very well here.

The band continued on, preaching their 8-bit message to enthusiastic ears. Some fifteen tunes in, The Advantage was winding down. Just as they were about to announce their final song, 40th st. Brian stood up. He proclaimed that the last support band was a no-show – The Advantage must play on!! The crowd roared with approval, and the bandmembers shrugged.

“Should we play…that one?”

“I don’t know, we never have before…”

It was all quite exciting. They wound up going on for another five-or-so songs, playing tunes they'd never performed previously, had barely rehearsed, and in one case, had just learned that morning.

And still, hardly a mistake was made (though the guitarist closest to me lost his place for a spell on one of the newer songs).

The show ended with a ridiculously awe-inspiring rendition of the theme from Magician – and with that, it was over. The magic of the evening still filled the air – the expectations had been met, and concert-goers milled about, dazed with pixelly visions.

The players left the stage. Before they got away, I took a quick photo. One of the guitarists had the third space invader from the top freaking embedded in the body his instrument with reflective plastic. Absolutely fantastic.

I had to get a shot of the bassist’s shirt as well. I don’t know what the hell it means, but it sure is indy. He asked that I make sure not to get his head. I don’t know if he was being facetious or not, but I complied nonetheless. Hell, it was the shirt I wanted. If a man wearing a shirt with the word ‘unicorn’ in it isn’t indy…well then I just don’t know what is.

And actually, I do wonder if that’s not the reason why these fellows are so subdued. They clearly come from the indy/alternative tradition – the legacy left us by the bleak gen-Xers. They come not from a legacy of punk rock, as the Minibosses do, but from a more cerebral and static place.

The music satisfied, that’s for certain. The cavalcade of aural pleasures was nearly overwhelming at times. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that something is missing from their live show. Maybe they’re too comfortable with their instruments, and lack the tension necessary for exhibitionist performance. Maybe they’re just laid back guys. Clearly they dominate in the recording studio, because as I mentioned, their technical ability is unmatched.

Make no mistake, the Advantage was a joy to see live. And yet, I believe that if they were to up the ante on their performance, they would be the greatest NES cover band in the natural world.

As the concert-goers sifted themselves through the exit door, my friends and I picked up our cds, our empty bottles and our spent bags of doritos. I couldn’t get the Ducktales theme out of my head, as we made way to the car, one of the last groups out the door. We had been witness to an incredible display of talent, and it weighed on our minds as we missed the freeway entrance and got lost in the depths of the Oakland hills. We nearly hit a deer, got caught in a landslide, and backed off a mountain, but that’s another tale for another time and another teller.

All you need to know is that The Advantage know how to rock some tunes from your Nintendo Entertainment System. And that should be good enough.

Don’t go too long without the rock music, friends. Next time, I hope to see you there. Your palms will thank you.

brandon sheffield hella likes the advantage.

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The Advantage website
(with MP3s)