With set after set of amazing drummers spanning genres and generations, downtown Los Angeles was abuzz in competition and celebration of some of the greatest drummers in the nation. For nearly a quarter century, Guitar Center has hosted the annual Drum-Off competition, and the January 2012 installment proved to be one of its finest assemblages. This year's iteration packed the house at a new venue for the event, Club Nokia, located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.
The night kicked off with Ilan Rubin (Nine Inch Nails/Angels and Airwaves), whose initial drum solo turned into a full jam session with his band, The New Regime, which featured bassist (and brother) Daniel Rubin and drummer Hayden Scott (Awolnation). Rubin proved his multi-instrumental prowess by switching from his sticks to a pick, strapping on an electric guitar and taking over as frontman, commanding the stage with guitar solos that electrified the room as easily as his drumming.
Aaron Spears had nothing but love for the crowd, showering his affection through percussion. On his solo over a backing track, Spears sliced through odd meters, landing fills with total ease, even beaming a few smiles for the cameras and audience. Mid way through his set, Spears told the audience that groove was paramount and proceeded to make his case by performing cuts with a full backing band, plus special guest and funk drumming legend Jabo Starks (of James Brown fame) on an adjacent kit.
Prog-rock percussion pioneer Mike Portnoy stepped on stage, surrounded by musicians of equally all-star caliber, including bassist Billy Sheehan, guitarist Tony MacAlpine and keyboardist Derek Sherinian. Opening with a thunderous double-kick pattern, Portnoy's flying sticks deftly supported the fret dancing of MacAlpine. The band also performed "Nightmare Cinema," an epic composition featuring the energy and precision of Portnoy, who has drummed in Dream Theater and Avenged Sevenfold.
The Drum-Off Grand Finals competition was next, judged by a wide array of massive names, including Dave Elitch (The Mars Volta), Ray Luzier (Korn), Cora Coleman-Dunham (Prince), Thomas Lang (stOrk), Tommy Clufetos (Ozzy Osbourne), Tony Royster Jr. (Jay-Z), Trevor Lawrence Jr. (Herbie Hancock), Jose Pasillas (Incubus), Adrian Young (No Doubt) and Peter Criss (KISS).
The judges had their eyes and ears tuned to each of the five competitors, starting off with Billy Freeman, who launched his solo set with quiet, tasteful touches transitioning into a shuffle feel. Freeman's bag of tricks revealed the speed of his hands crossing all over the kit, crash cymbal mutes and some deliberate paused beats. The dynamic affair sported intense double bass kicking and a grab of the hi-hat stand during the massive send-off.
This was Devon Taylor's fourth time competing in Guitar Center's Drum-Off, and he opted to break into his solo with a little swing rhythm on the hi-hats. Taylor expanded upon this jazz approach by intertwining a cross-stick pattern with his cowbell, and drew upon the use of pads to perform a small melodic lick.
Thrusting into a Latin feel using the floor tom shell as a percussive component, Taylor capped his five minutes with a fast groove that morphed into a quiet ending, coming full circle from his start.
JP Bouvet kicked off his performance quite dramatically with intense rolls across the kit and electronic pad hits triggering sustained notes. Bouvet then requested the audience's participation in clapping along to an increasingly faster rhythmic pattern between the crossstick of the snare and his pedal-operated cowbell. Bouvet's solo added a splash cymbal placed on the snare batter head, which was used in conjunction with the sound effects on the pad, which later changed to a set of marimba hits. Bouvet sent his solo home juggling his sticks amid cymbal crashes and sixteenth-note bass drum hits.
Milwaukee's Fred Boswel Jr. could barely be heard at the start of his set, with an extremely quiet intro in a 3/4 feel. But the delicate touches didn't last as Boswel ramped up his turn at the kit, attacking the heads with enough force to send his glasses flying. The interplay between his toms and cowbell impressed the crowd, as did the speed of his hands, which were mere blurs most of the time.
Rounding out the fivesome was California-based Jesus Garcia. Garcia, who had been a part of the Drum-Off finals once before, started with Hot Rods on the cymbals and even used his fingers before launching into a visually-dazzling performance spinning crashes, placing his elbow on the high-hat, and twirling sticks across the cymbals. Garcia ended with a run around the toms and a stick thrown straight up into the air.
A set by veteran drummer Dennis Chambers (Santana) followed the competition, as he laid down solid funk jams with his band Graffiti, featuring a group of powerful musicians. Chambers' signature style was on full display here, showcasing fluid motions and ease behind the kit, aided by lighting-quick stick reflexes. The legendary drummer had the crowd especially amazed when soloing with just one hand.
Brooks Wackerman stepped in at the last minute, but his performance was anything but hastily assembled. In fact, Wackerman's show was quite the package, with a massive drum solo followed by the addition of bassists Robert Trujillo (Metallica) and Armand Sabal-Lecco (Paul Simon). The pairing's medley of bass riffs led to a minute-long composition titled "Coffee," punctuated by metalinspired blast beats.
But the metal was fully realized with a very surprising appearance by Tenacious D, whose frontmen Jack Black and Kyle Gass had most members of the audience pumping their fists throughout the entire performance. Wackerman took a second solo within the three-song Tenacious D set, and walked off stage to a standing ovation.
Carrying on the excitement was the announcement of the winner of the 2011 Drum-Off. Beating out over 4,500 drummers in the national contest was Boston's JP Bouvet.
"I was thinking, why not prepare the absolute best thing I can—all my creativity and all my ideas that I wanted to portray to the world, just put them all in there at once," said Bouvet, reflecting on his win. "It's hard to get 12 years of drumming into five minutes. It's hard to choose what to JP BOUVET, 2011 DRUM-OFF CHAMPION portray, but my mindset was a balance of things that I wanted to play … and then things I think that the judges wanted to see, and things that the audience wanted to see. I really wanted to just do something different."
Bouvet—who is currently the drummer in the rock band Helicopria (www.helicopria.com) and fusion act The Super Pilots—said he practiced daily for the competition and he also consulted with previous Drum-Off winner Jerome Flood II. "I've been living by this motto that practice makes it better and preparation makes your worst better," Bouvet said. "I can't give you a number of hours as far as preparation goes, but it's probably in the hundreds."
In terms of putting on a visual display, Bouvet noted that showmanship is vital. "That's in the category of what the judges want to see and what the audience wants to see. Because the audience loves it and part of the judging is showmanship, so it's necessary and it's a blast to do."
Guitar Center's Glenn Noyes presented this year's Drum Legends awards to KISS drummer Peter Criss and Terry Bozzio, both of whom received standing ovations from the audience.
"This is really cool, this is what it's about," said Criss, who dedicated the award to his late manager.
Bozzio thanked Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck and Missing Persons upon receiving the award, adding that now he "had to go up there and prove it."
And prove it, Bozzio did. Seated behind his massive trademark drum set, Bozzio's inventive style was on full display, taking full advantage of every drum, cymbal and percussive instrument mounted to the expansive rack. His intricate compositions were perfectly syncopated to supporting musicians Jimmy Johnson and Alex Machacek, and he made extensive use of melodic soloing. Bozzio received another well-deserved standing ovation at the end of his set, further proving the audience's overwhelming satisfaction of a truly spectacular night.