For seven bands, the musical growing pains, costume fittings and weeks of rehearsal and dance practice all boil down to one battle — a sexy, energized and wildly creative night of wailing on guitars and rocking out on drums, bass and keyboard, belting their favorite songs on stage.
But what may not be immediately obvious is that most of these musicians — all women, from all walks of life on the East End — have played their instruments for just a few weeks. And by getting on stage, they’re living out a fantasy, or realizing a dream they never knew they had.
This is the Battle of the Fantasy Girl Bands.
“‘Badass’ is really the vibe,” according to Christine Sciulli, bassist for reigning champs Ova Flow and co-producer of the annual event. “Every time I say, ‘Do you want to be in a band?’ to women I meet, they say, ‘I don’t play any instruments.’ But that’s not the point. It’s, ‘Do you want to? If you want to, you can.’ You can learn any one song on any instrument.”
“We’re living proof of that,” drummer and co-producer Holly Li said.
“You can learn one song if you practice it, so that’s what we want to encourage: people to stop limiting themselves,” Sciulli said. “And I think we’ve gotten a lot of women to take that risk and make it happen.”
Dressed in all white, complete with platinum wigs, last year, Ova Flow walked away with the heralded “mighty headdress,” securing the win with “The Dog Days are Over” by Florence + The Machine during the annual fundraiser for The Neo-Political Cowgirls.
The 2020 competition takes place this Saturday night at The Stephen Talkhouse.
It was a “pretty ballsy” choice that paid off, according to Kate Mueth, founder of the not-for-profit dance theater company dedicated to exploring and celebrating the female voice.
“I have found that the older we get, the fewer risks we generally take. We are highly uncomfortable with being out of our comfort zone,” Mueth said. “We’re highly uncomfortable not knowing how to do something — which actually, to me, is a really exciting place to be. I love that messy pool of, ‘I’m learning something, what is this?’ It’s like swimming in the darkness.”
“But I think that’s the richness of it,” she continued. “It’s where we get to really experience our elasticity of our humanity. I think it’s wonderful and if we did have more things like this in the world where it’s not the product, it’s the process that we’re seeing and cheering each other on for, I think we would all be so much happier. I think we’d be kinder. I think we would be a much more joyful society that’s rooted in each other more than we see today.”
The standing-room-only show is proof of that, said Mueth, who did not know what to expect during the first band battle three years ago. It proved to be a wild, heartfelt and uplifting night, one that has routinely sold out — last year, to over capacity.
As a precaution, tickets can be purchased only online for the fourth iteration.
“The audiences are so invested in it,” Mueth said. “They’re not going there to hear perfection, and it’s only one song, so how bad can it be? If we’re terrible, it’s only three minutes of torture, but you’re still seeing something up there that’s work that’s been done and energy’s that beautiful, and courage — really, truly incredible, beautiful courage. The audiences have always been so spectacularly supportive, in the spirit of the fun. We call it a competition, tongue-in-cheek.”
The bands — some comprised of old friends, others new acquaintances — each learn and practice one song before taking the stage, loosely judged by emcees Nancy Atlas and Inda Eaton, and house band Smitten Kitten.
There are no major rules, except for one: the bands cannot dress up a man as a woman.
“That was tried the first year and we were like, ‘Oh hell no!’” Mueth said. “Our immediate reaction is not gonna be, ‘Oh, I need a man.’ F–k that. Get up there and learn how to do the three chords you need to play. Do it. Push into it, right?”
Ova Flow did just that — Sciulli and Li both learned new instruments — and couldn’t believe they clinched the win, and the headdress.
“It was overwhelming,” Li said.
“I wasn’t anticipating that we’d win last year,” Sciulli said. “It broadsided us.”
Even though Ova Flow is tight-lipped about what they have planned to defend their title — “We can tell you, but then we’d have to kill you,” Sciulli said — the band already has stiff competition from the mouthy SLOTS.
“We thought a little trash talk would be fun, because everyone is so nice,” bandleader and guitarist Anne Kothari said. “We were like, ‘We should mix this up a bit!’ It was hilarious.”
“We’re ‘slottier’ than ever!” her bandmate, Sue de Lara, piped up. “We have tricks up our slots.”
The band placed third last year, and they’re determined to seize the headdress for their own on Saturday night — though they, admittedly, acknowledge that winning is not the point of the battle.
For them, and all of the amateur musicians, it’s about actively moving through their fear and away from their comfort zones, which takes muscle in mind, body and spirit, Mueth said.
“A lot of this is so much about the power of women showing up for each other — and not just showing up for The Neo-Political Cowgirls, although ultimately that’s where the funding all goes toward and that’s incredible,” she said. “But it’s also just these other ways — not so little ways, either — of showing up for rehearsal and being there and reliable for each other, and taking risks together and going into your fear and doing it anyways.”
The fourth annual “Battle of the Fantasy Girl Bands” contest and silent auction will be held on Saturday, February 1, at 7 p.m. at The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. Tickets are $25, sold in advance only, and proceeds benefit The Neo-Political Cowgirls’ ongoing local arts and education work. For tickets and more information, visit npcowgirls.org or stephentalkhouse.com.