Problemo Man, one of 39 bands that existed for just 10 minutes last Saturday in Cleveland. Photo credit: Ken Blaze
In the city of Cleveland there exists an ambitious musical project called Lottery League. The project has happened four times since 2008. It involves hundreds of local musicians; it is both an index of the city’s tight-knit musical scene and a mechanism fostering continuation of the exact same quality. It has become a key part of the fabric of the musical life of the city.
For those who don’t know, here’s how it works. Every couple of years the self-anointed “Council of Chiefs” (originally Jae Kristoff, Mike James, Edward Ángel Sotelo, Nate Scheible, and John Delzoppo) do their damndest to secure commitments from roughly 150 musicians who agree to get their names tossed into a literal hopper—in front of an audience of hundreds on a chilly February evening, the names are drawn in a random order and somewhere around 35 new combos are created from the list of 150 musicians. No band can include members that have been in a band together before (lengthy musical CVs must be submitted beforehand) and every band has to have a drummer. Aside from that, you get what you get. If your band has three bassists, then that’s your Iron Chef menu of ingredients to work with.
All 35 bands are then sent away to convene, rehearse, compose, and so on. All bands must come up with a a concept and a name, compose exactly 10 minutes of original music (no covers allowed), and generate a handbill that serves as a statement of identity. All bands are given roughly 10 weeks to hone their material in preparation for a vast omnibus concert in mid-April, in which every single band struts their stuff, one after the other. The massive event is aptly called The Big Show, because it lasts around 12 hours.
Lottery League 2016 poster. Art by Jake Kelly. Click for a larger view.
The Lottery League has gone down in 2008, 2010, 2013, and—just a couple days ago, on April 16, 2016. The first two iterations of The Big Show took place at the venerable Beachland Ballroom in picturesque Waterloo neighborhood of Cleveland, but in 2013 the Lottery League secured the spacious confines of the Agora Ballroom Theater and Ballroom near Downtown.
An autobiographical word at this juncture. I used to be a resident of New York, and I’m now a resident of Cleveland, and the 2010 version of Lottery League played a key role in my decision to relocate. It should go without saying that I have strong feelings about Lottery League. I love Lottery League.
Queen of Hell or actually, Heavenly Queen
It’s my perception that the people in the rock scene in Cleveland know each other tolerably well—some of them have been slogging it out together in the indie rock underground for some years now. It’s an advantage of a city of Cleveland’s size over, say, New York, which has so many more musicians working in it that, paradoxically, an event like Lottery League either wouldn’t work or would lack the same salience, as there are 30 different “scenes” that aren’t connected to each other in any way. In Cleveland you can conceive of an event that successfully involves a significant cross-section of a specific rock scene, the punk/hardcore scene and the experimental rock scene.
If you’ve done the math, four years of Lottery League have resulted in the creation of roughly 140 short-term, mostly temporary, bands, and something about the allotted time of 10 minutes and the unlikelihood of a repeat performance has resulted in some marvelous conceptual creations that only happened a single time, a bit like a surprise party for a friend. There’s an emphasis on shenanigans, mayhem, and showmanship. The curious nature of the project has led to unusual band names that would never get chosen for a project of longer duration. Examples include: Swayze All Over, Gandhi SS, Hot Dignity, Dehumidifier vs. Humidifier, Mohammed Cartoon, Jean-Claude Goddamn, Snuggle Prophet, Melted Face Constitutional, Fuck Is the New Black, Waaaaay Better Than Ezra, 38% Special, World War V, Sausage Pilot, Robosexual, Hut Hut Hike, and SCMODS.
In Cleveland, among certain circles, if a phrase with a curious ring by happenstance materializes, it’s always a defensible rejoinder to say, “Hey, that’s a Lottery League name.” Someone in the group will get the reference. The idea of a Lottery League-sized name or, more to the point, a Lottery League-sized idea, has entered the city’s particular musical ozone layer.
Good. Photo credit: Jen Hearn
It’s worth noting that although Lottery League is conceived as a one-off, a handful of bands have leaped from that confined space into, erm, “real life,” most notably Hiram-Maxim, who put out an album last year from Aqualamb Records (and were written up in VICE), but also Queen of Hell, How to Stay Alive in the Woods, Dinosaur Coffin, and Isle of Eyelids, among others.
In past years the opinion has been voiced that Lottery League was a touch too insular, a touch too GenX, a touch too focused on rock. In fact, the turnover within LL has been impressive, and I know for a fact that the Chiefs have worked to broaden the profile a little bit, and it was noticeable that the 2016 iteration was a little younger and a little more diverse in musical terms than in previous incarnations. Among the instruments seen onstage were an accordion, two cellos, two trombones, a harp, and a koto (I may have missed some) and even if the majority of the bands hewed to an austere Kraftwerkishness or a funky/jazzy groove, there were instances of the opposite as well, with acts bringing their most jaw-dropping versions of rap (These Swords Are Real), opera (Fugitive Howler), gagaku (Way of the Warrior) and Kurt Weill-esque tomfoolery (High Class Carnival).
Keep reading after the jump…