Guest Review: Guitar Center’s Drum-Off ‘09

The Drum Off is a unique experience that it is in part the search for the Nation’s top undiscovered drummer and in part a concert featuring some of the industry’s elite drummers. The Drum Off has staying power; this was the event’s 21st incarnation.

The event was hosted by the personable Steven Perkins (Janes Addiction, Porno for Pyros and Banyan) who is a notable musician and personifies the drummer’s persona. Drummers are not typically front men in the band; however, they are the solid foundation upon which the music is created and the engine that propels the music forward. As such they are often an interesting dichotomy. While they are often known for their cognitive abilities and humble demeanors, they have the ability to strike their instruments with a force and drive typically unseen by other musicians. Many of the evening’s performers — both professional and aspiring amateurs — embodied this exact duality, coupling powerful performances with modest reactions to the crowd’s plentiful praise.

The evening began with a promising set featuring progressive rocks’ Danny Carey and Brann Dailor. Danny Carey, the gifted drummer from the progressive-rock behemoth Tool (and lesser know acts as Pigmy Love Circus, Zaum and the defunct Green Jelly) is widely regarded as one of the most creative and melodic drummers in the industry. His command of flowing odd-time signature beats is unrivalled and his status as a “Rock God” among musicians is widely known. Sharing the stage with Carey were fellow drummers Brann Dailor from Mastadon and unbilled drummer/keyboardist Kirk Covington as well as a guitarist and bassist.

Following a rousing introduction including raucous screams by a handful of fan boys and metal heads, the three-song experiment commenced. What ensured was a house mix that can only be described as an auditory tragedy. There was no discernable separation of instruments in the audio mix — just a loud, muddy soundscape that was more confounding than entertaining. I could clearly see Carey playing an assortment of ghost notes and dynamic beats but could not make out any of the sounds. It was, for me, the saddest moment of the night. I suppose I should blame whoever was running the board because the sound for the rest of the night was acceptable.

Most of the 15 minute set was played in 6/8 — a signature that both musicians and plebeians could appreciate. Dailor appeared competent as a drummer although his beats were far less nuanced than Carey’s and appeared more heavy-handed. While Carey played looking forward (or inward), Dailor spent most of the set looking at Carey as if following his lead.

The unannounced addition of Covington was met with mixed results. Other than the fact that he was the drummer with no billing on the stage, his kit was by far the clearest in the mix. Covington, a local player in bands such as Tribal Tech, CPT Kirk ad Volto! (with Danny Carey) stood his drumming ground next to the legendary Carey. However, his antics and expressions on stage were quite distracting. His keyboard solos included numerous overwrought physical and facial affectations that mirrored the music he was playing and drew far too much attention to him.

Following the Carey/Dailor set were the finalists from the Guitar Center regional competitions. The Drum Off competitors were:

Ramon Sampson from Cordova, TN

Eugine McBride from Flint, MI

Michael McGrath from Henderson, NV

Stanley Jamal Hampton from Smithtown, NY

Troy Molsberry from Carlsbad, CA

These amateur drummers beat out more than 4,000 drummers across the country for a chance to compete for the title, $25,000 in cash and numerous other prizes. Each contestant was given 5 minutes to perform a solo that would be judged on the basic of skills, creativity and showmanship.

Judges for the night were drummer elites included legendary Steely Dan collaborator Peter Erskine, Taylor Hawkins from Foo Fighters, studio master Thomas Lang, Jason Sutter from Chris Cornell, studio sessions legend Kenny Aronoff, John Tempesta from The Cult, Nisan Stewart from 50 Cent and previous Drum Off! winner Tony Royster, Jr. who performs with Jay-Z. In the past (at the Sunset House of Blues), the judges sat in plain view — a special treat to attendees. Unfortunately, this set of judges was sequestered to the balcony and were hidden from sight.

Fortunately for the amateurs, the sound issues were gone and every tone, ghost note and subtle intonation was clearly transmitted to the audience. This batch of amateurs sounded great. Leading off the competition was a dynamic performance of Ramon Sampson who provided the most balanced showcase of the evening. He straddled the line of performer and performance better than any of the other competitors. Even to the uninitiated, it’s very easy to discern when a drummer has done special. Audience members were found laughing in “how-did-he-just-do-that” appreciation or yelling “Ohhhhhhh” in admiration. I was completely engaged by this young man’s performance in a way that the other competitors were unable to equal.

The other amateur performers had stand out moments as well. Eugine McBride provided solid beats with an over the top, shirt tearing performance that was enjoyable to watch. However, I would have preferred more drumming and less “popping.”

Michael McGrath arrived with the largest homegrown fan constituency each with a pro Michael t-shirt. If the Drum Off! was judged by fan reaction, he would have won hands-down. On a side-note, his fan base also featured the best looking female fans in the audience! McGrath’s style was solid but his amazing cymbal work was unfortunately tainted by his frequent stops where he invited applause.

Stanley Jamal followed next and was also solid; however his showmanship and performance skills were not on par with the others.

The likeable Troy Molsberry ended the competition in a surprising set that featured excellent control, dynamics and footwork. His set was creative and entertaining and was easily the second best of the night.

Ultimately, the award went to Sampson who received a roar from the crowd in appreciation.

Following the competition came the induction part of the show. Jason Bonham, son of late rock pioneer John Bonham from Led Zeppelin, is an accomplished drummer of Bonham and, most recently, Foreigner. In a tribute to his father, Bonham played in front of a large video screen and traded chops with the Zeppelin beatsmith in the classic showcase song “Moby Dick.” Bonham’s take on the song was interesting and engaging. Missing from the solo, unfortunately, was his father’s trademarked hand solo (without sticks) and explosive triplet beats. Following the too-brief 10 minute tribute, Bonham graciously accepted the posthumous award for John Bonham’s induction into the Drummers Hall of Fame and spoke for a short time. He graciously and humbly not only gave praise to the senior Bonham’s abilities but showed genuine emotion when honoring his father.

The surprise and highlight of the night was a performance by the legendary Billy Cobham — often regarded as fusion’s greatest drummer. Besides playing with luminaries such as guitarist George Benson and trumpeter Miles Davis, he is known as the co-founder of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Introduced by surprise guest Alan White (another legend and longtime member of the progressive band Yes), Cobham proceeded to astound the crowd with a 10 minute solo that was unrivaled during the show. Beginning with four drumsticks (two in each hand), the Panama native launched into a solo that had the audience swooning. The musicality and complete command of the form was a treat for all listeners. Perhaps sensing a missed opportunity by the junior Bonham, he finished his unaccompanied solo with a hand-only performance à la John Bonham. Cobham’s performance was easily the best of the show. When he was presented with his award for induction in the Drummers Hall of Fame, his likeability and graciousness were apparent and appreciated by the pleased audience.

What followed was billed as “Bezerk” — an exclusive project commissioned by Guitar Center and presented by Tommy Lee from Mötley Crüe and the Street Drum Corps’ Frank Zummo. This promising project featured some of the best known names in drumming, including Max Weinberg (Bruce Springsteen, Conan O’Brien Show), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Matt Sorum (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver), José Pasillas (Incubus) and Abe Cunningham (Deftones).

The project began well enough with a percussive performance featuring a stomp performer and the USC Trojan Drumline who entered from the audience and marched onstage. This performance was distracted for me by the lone nearby hooligan who did his best to attempt to initiate a fight (see René’s post for more).

Tarnishing the entire set were the lackluster DJing and trying antics of midget. DJ Aero, who plays with Tommy Lee in Methods of Mayhem, kept the beats flowing between drum sets. However, he provided little in the way of creativity. This was a missed opportunity to showcase a star in the DJing world. An even grosser misstep was the inclusion of a midget between sets who alternated between dancing, silly acrobatics and throwing of rave-like glow sticks at the crowd. While this type of self-deprecating humor may be perfectly acceptable to the below 11 crowd, the cultured audience of musicians felt uncomfortable while watching these antics and couldn’t wait for them to desist.

Max Weinberg was joined by his son and fellow drummer Jay Weinberg in an electric duet set to the big band jazz song “Sing, Sing, Sing”. The Weinbergs traded quite different musical solos while staying true to their genres — Max the traditional jazz drummer and Jay the rock/nu metal drummer. It was a refreshing contrast to hear both drummers’ takes on the same song. Both paid homage to the material while adding substantive elements. This performance was another of the night’s triumphs.

Unfortunately, what followed proved to be much of a letdown.

A Latin percussion solo by Sully Erna — best known as the powerful lead singer for Godsmack — was proficient but did not showcase the instruments to their full potential. Playing primarily on a set of bongos and djembe, Erna’s playing was sufficient but pedestrian in comparison with the other performers. Erna’s kit work which wasn’t represented at this event is much better.

José Pasillas then began what was a disturbing trend. The talented drummer for Incubus played to backing tracks provided by DJ Aero — beginning with “Lowrider.” He provided a unique take on the song and gave it a fresh, funky rhythm. However, his subsequent songs were less than memorable. This misfire was a tragic underutilization of a clearly talented musician.

The drummers that followed continued the lackadaisical performance. Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers) gave an average performance on a beautiful, custom molded kit.

Matt Sorum’s (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver) and Abe Cunningham’s (Deftones) performances were unremarkable. Tommy Lee and Frank Zummo gave the evening’s longest performances, playing along to what felt like dozens of mid-tempo songs. Each change of song resulted in a thinning of the crowd; at one point, I turned to my fellow concertgoer René with the “can we leave?” look. Fortunately, he was astute enough to pick up on my feeling and we left in the proceeding seconds.

The “Bezerk” misstep did not take away from my enjoyment of the evening. Excellent performances by up-and-comers combined with the refinement of a living legend was enough for me. Special thanks to the Working Author himself, René Garcia, for allowing me the opportunity to temporary co-opt his site.

  1. I’m very proud of those Team Michael shirts, and we wore them proudly! Michael McGrath is not only an outstanding drummer but an incredibl human being!

  2. I was there and cheering for Michael McGrath. His performance was amazing and was the only drummer to get a standing ovation. His solo gave me goosebumps and I can’t wait to see which band is lucky enough to get him.

  3. I’m on Team Michael as well and was all the way up in the nose-bleeding top row to take it all in. For no other drummer did the crowd stand and cheer not only at the end, but during his performance. And even though I’m not a drummer, the folks to my left and right were and they were confident that Michael Mcgrath was the winner.

  4. Michael McGrath will be a great addition to any of the better bands of today! He is very talented and we are very proud of him!

  5. Julia..Thanks for the support to Michael! If you are on facebook, become a fan of “Team Michael”

  6. Pretty good article overall, except that I disagree that Ramon Sampson was the clear winner. All 5 contestants are excellent drummers, however I think Sampson relied too much on props and did not show much diversity in terms of actual drumming. The 3rd guy McGrath seemed to have much more technical skill, variety of styles, and the showmanship. To me, that’s the complete package.

  7. I just watched all the vids, and the McGrath drummer was by far superior than the rest. I thought this was supposed to be the primo of all drum competitions? I’ve got to seriously question the judging panel if they honestly thought Ramon was a better dummer than McGrath. Not to mention, the crowd went absolutely nuts after McGrath’s performance. You were right about one thing though, McGrath’s cymbal work was sick!! Props to him!!!!

  8. I watched all the videos and I just can’t see it. Both contestants #2 and #3 were by far better than Ramon was. I hope future contestants do not feel they have to use the type of cheap gimmicks that Ramon used to win this event. It will only diminish the prestige of this event. Guitar Center – please screen your judges better!!!!!

  9. The author got it wrong. The crowd did not “roar from the crowd in appreciation” for the winner. The audience cheered the most for Michael McGrath, hands down. McGrath received a standing ovation and I felt like I was at a rock concert when he was playing. I have no idea what the judges saw that the entire crowd missed.

  10. Man, I’m glad I came across this review. I’ve been checking youtube and Guitar Center’s websites for all the finalists videos, but they only have Ramon’s.

    I attended the Drum Off with some friends. I can honestly say that all of us knew the evening clearly belonged to McGrath. This dude was in a league all of his own! The other drummers started out ok, but I quickly felt bored with them as they seemed to just randomly play around until they were tapped on the shoulder.

    From the first beat to the last, McGrath was unstoppable energy. He obviously had an orchestrated, planned out solo. Just when we thought there was nothing left for him to wow us with, McGrath continued to shock and wow us over and over. He also played a wide variety of styles which the other finalists didn’t do.

    And to say that McGrath invited applause? Um, what about Ramon? He clearly begged for the audience to applaud for him many times. But, that’s ok. These guys were there to win. I like to feel I have a relationship with performers. I felt McGrath was just trying to connect with the audience, rather than seek applause.

    I don’t know who the judges and Brian Glass think they’re fooling, but they didn’t fool any of us in the audience. No other finalist received the applause and standing ovation that McGrath received. Like I said, McGrath was in a category all his own. He was the obvious winner. My friends and I walked away in disgust with the results.

  11. Wow, lots of opinions here! Though I have to wonder how many of these comments coming from Las Vegas and Mississippi are from Team Michael. 😉 Regardless, thank you everyone for checking out my site.

    I’m not a drummer myself and I personally thought the competition was going to be a toss-up between Sampson and McGrath. When I saw Team Michael at Denny’s afterward, I wanted to come by and congratulate him on a great performance, but I thought it’d be better to leave him to his friends and family.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and keep the comments coming.

  12. mcgrath has always been that good – even in middle school. he gave me goosebumps just watching and listening on this website. he should have won that competition, hands down. he did an awesome job (as did all of them). michael will improve any band that he’s in! we’re proud of you michael!!!

  13. Garcia, not from Vegas or Miss. From LA area. I don’t play, but hang out with musicians. I love good music and I know a great musician when I hear one.


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