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By Ross S. Weinstein, Crimson Staff Writer

Rockus is upon us. Harvard’s only student-run record label (Veritas Records) and Rolling Stone Collection sponsored Battle of the Bands, Rockus, has been rocking the Loft at Tommy Doyle’s for the last three weekends, replete with all the great wah-wah leaden guitar solos and terrible college band names you could dream of (The Sound of Growing Up, Sex!, Francis & the Lost Marbles). This past Saturday though, it was Harvard’s turn; BC, BU, Berklee, MIT, Emerson, and Tufts had already staked their claim and chosen one band apiece to send to the final round set for April 14 at Paradise Rock Club near BU in Boston. There, the winners of each prelim will compete for the ultimate prize: their name in Rolling Stone magazine and on, a three-track EP recording session at a top studio in New York, and a cash prize.

The stage was set, the Loft packed with a sold-out crowd of low-top Nike Dunk SB’s (and five pairs of parents’ penny loafers). Tommy Doyle’s great upstairs venue was well-lit with a low-slanted cabin ceiling, a small but very visible stage, and good sound. In fact, despite the weirdly-placed U2 Elevation tour poster hanging right above the lead singer’s head, there’s hardly another venue in the Square better suited for this kind of show.

Veritas Records CEO Caitlin V. Crump ’10 kicked things off by explaining the prizes and the grading system that would be used by the judges—an expert panel of roommates, a former head of Veritas Records, and some guy from MIT. Each band would be “graded based on sound, performance, and lastly but certainly not least, crowd reaction.”

And with that she introduced the first band, Elephantom, who drew a big round of applause before even playing a note. There were clearly some friends in the crowd, but the band quickly showed that the applause was well deserved with a thumping opening song.

Best defined as a jazz-rock fusion group with jam-band leanings, Elephantom were pretty much a great “Battle of the Bands” band. It was pretty evident, though, that each of the instrumentalists (trumpet, guitar, keys, and bass) had talent with a special emphasis on the skills of drummer Nick Pope, and the cute lead singer didn’t hurt their chances, even if the PA made her a little hard to hear. Four songs kept the crowd skanking—that knees bent, head-bobbing, white people dance that looks cool when girls do it but really stupid when guys do it, and even started some crowd surfing which amusingly ended in someone’s mom getting kicked in the head. A crowd chant after their last song made Elephantom early favorites.

Next up was Disband, or Shy October, or Caitria O’Neill; a pre-show name change confused the Tommy Doyle’s staff, but for continuity’s sake let’s just call them Kathleen Turner Overdrive.The viola and acoustics outfit brought a slower, softer, Ingrid Michaelson sound to the stage that was well received, but ultimately too calm to retain attention. Until they nail down their sound, they would do much better in a coffeeshop setting, but for a band that was put together just for this show, they definitely put out something enjoyable.

Seasoned vets the Ben Kultgen Band were third in the lineup, and though I’m not sure how a band without any current Harvard students were allowed in the contest, these guys were definitely the most polished of the four competing groups. Also the only straightforward two guitars, bass, and drums rock outfit in the battle, the Ben Kultgen Band threw down some solid pop-rock. Three songs that would be prime for rotation on any adult-alternative radio station were it not for some heavy metal-inspired guitar work, were by far the tightest, cleanest songs of the night.

They did a great job getting the crowd into it, seemingly dedicating every song to the ladies, and even the other bands could be seen dancing in the crowd, appreciative of their performance. Their last song was the only cover of the night, and would prove to be the show stealer, as Kultgen’s sweater came off and sunglasses came on and the band launched into a well-crafted version of Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time.”

Taking the stage last was Start, Go!, who also put out a fairly tight performance with their brand of Dashboard Confessional rock. General pop-punk gave way to one or two good slow burners. The five song set was highlighted by their new track “Cut Like a Knife” which showed a lot of promise, but a between-song MySpace plug seemed to turn off a few crowd members. It wasn’t really clear which of the band members were Harvard students as they definitely had an older look. Also of note was the lead guitarist’s hilarious Michael Jordan tongue wag solo face.

In the end, Kultgen and co. took home the bacon, and can look forward to carrying The Crimson to Paradise Rock Club. After a string of sold-out round one shows, fans will now have to wait until the final competition in April to determine which college band can best sell their sound in Boston.

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