Smile Politely

Versus Me and Alborn tune up at The Canopy Club

The lead singer of the band Versus Me, James Milbrandt on stage during a performance at the Canopy Club. He is wearing all black, with a black arm sleeve on his left arm. That arm is extended out, point to the crowd. He holds the microphone up to his mouth with his right hand. The lightings is red and pink and purple.
Derrick Philips

The Canopy Club welcomed three hard rock acts into their venue Wednesday night — Boxcar Graffiti, Alborn, and Versus Me — and no one left dissatisfied.

I’m a man in my 50s. I have no business hanging out in rock clubs and head-banging to music made by folks 25 to 30 years my junior. But wait a minute. Didn’t a lot of us in our 50s listen to Metallica, Megadeth, and other mainstream metal bands prominent in the 80s? Did we forget how much fun it was to release our angst to a song by swaying our head up and down? I didn’t forget, so I indulged the lead singer of the headliner, Versus Me, when he said “You know what to do!” Not only am I not too proud to bang my head (as much as my old body lets me), but I apparently still have some angst left-over from the 80s that I needed to exorcise, because I obliged.

Versus Me didn’t do all the heavy lifting for this cathartic show. Opener Boxcar Graffiti gave the audience a taste of the hard-driving rhythms they would experience throughout the night. Their set consisted of songs filled with heavy bass and fluttering guitar, with a beat from the drum section that made your bones shake. Most bands don’t choose to end their set with a cover, but Boxcar Graffiti chose “Out of the Black” by Royal Blood to end their set, and it was a choice to showcase their musical chops with the unique beat that song delivers. 

Next up were the tone-setters for the night. Alborn hails from the Quad Cities and they are tuning up for their upcoming tour with 90s theatrical rock act Powerman 5000. They have one more show before that tour starts, and it happens to be a sold out EP release party in Davenport, IA. Before this show I asked them if the sold-out show gave them a little validation.

“A little bit. I’m still not convinced. We’re all our own worst critics,” said lead singer Justin Taylor. “It’s hard to accept, I guess. I would treat it like it’s not a big deal, but this a massive deal. I had no idea it was gonna sell out, I’m just now coming to terms with it.”

As refreshing as Taylor’s humility was backstage, onstage he took command right away. At first, the Wednesday night crowd was a bit lethargic, but he wasn’t settling for complacency. He stopped  three songs into the set and told the crowd, “I know it’s Wednesday night, and some of you have to work tomorrow. But I need more from you, so let’s go.”

The sleepy weeknight crowd started coming around and soon were bouncing to the heavy beats being laid down by bass player Zame Lewis and ferocious drummer Alex Glaser. The hard-banging Glaser even broke a cymbal during the show, all the while adding the lead and background growls to Taylor’s melodic vocals. Guitarist Nate Guske added his voice to the mix, making for a three-prong vocal attack where each voice sounded like another instrument within the song. 

What struck me most about Alborn was the precise nature of their songs. There were many complicated and fast rhythm parts that required synchronicity, and all band members weaved in and out of these intricate parts completely in sync, even moving their bodies to the same rhythms they were delivering. 

Judging how the pit filled up so quickly after Alborn, the majority of the crowd was there to see headliner Versus Me, and lead singer James Milbrandt led his band onstage. All were dressed in dark tactical clothing, each of them with a ring of orange LED lights around one of their arms. It was a subtle, but ultimately true, premonition that they would seize the night. They broke into their song “Control” and proceeded to do just that to the fans packed into the Red Room Wednesday night.

Have you ever watched someone do their job so well, you’re envious of them finding their purpose in life? That was Versus Me drummer J.J. Johnson while he played. Still in the dark SWAT-like uniform like the rest of the band, Johnson stood out behind the kit with his blonde hair, dangling earrings and a George Michael allure, sporting a grin as wide as the Grand Canyon for the entire show. It was a genuine expression of how much he appreciated being there in that moment with a crowd clearly feeding off every note. 

If Johnson was the lion in the circus, lead singer Milbrandt was undoubtedly the ringmaster. He propped himself up on a metal grate that stood about eight inches higher than the stage, and he used it as his pulpit to rid the crowd of their anxieties by getting everyone to sing along and bang their heads. Guitarist Dustin Hansen showed off amazing chops all the while jumping in on vocals to add another element to the songs. Rounding out the band was bassist Lee Milbrandt (brother of James) who matched the intricate rhythms his bandmates were laying down. 

Discussing their influences prior to the show, I poked fun at them a wee bit about a mention of Maroon 5 as an influence on their Wikipedia page. They took me more seriously than I intended, almost sounding defensive when blaming it on a former band member and forgetting to update their Wikipedia page. These boys play hard  rock, and they are serious and proud about it. However, I came back around to this conversation later when I heard the melodies of some of their songs floating above the driving rhythms. While metalcore may not be for the mainstream, if you took away the hard rock instruments known for this genre, you’ll find pop songs underneath some of them. There’s no shame in writing a great melody, in any genre. 

During the show, it became evident that Versus Me brings more to the table than the elements that define harder rock music. Hansen was a wizard with his pedals and amps to create countless interesting sounds on his guitar. James Milbrandt jumped back and forth from golden-throated vocals to the growls indicative of the sub-genre. Lastly, Lee Milbrandt and Johnson laid down the foundation for their ten blistering songs, ending with their latest single, “Terrified.” 

Alborn is off to tour with Powerman 5000, and Versus Me is about to embark on a U.S. tour supporting Awake at Last. Both bands have positive momentum in their careers and I expect to see them playing bigger venues and headlining their own tours soon.

Music Editor

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