The Flickerstick Phenomenon
I talk about Bands on the Run, a reality TV show that was one season on VH1, my Penny Lane summer, and missing Cleveland. Oh yeah, and Flickerstick.
Back in 2001, I had not yet sworn off reality TV. I was skeptical and certainly didn’t gravitate toward it, but I dipped my toe in occasionally. Like most kids my age, I watched “The Real World” on MTV over the years. In the late 90s and into the early 2000s, reality TV took a turn to being the biggest form of mainstream television. Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race and others dotted the TV schedule. Somehow anything that was a competition became a reality show too. American Idol and X Factor took talent competitions and added reality-based storytelling on the side. Last Comic Standing adapted some of the Big Brother / Real World / everyone living together motifs to standup comedy to help deliver names like Dat Phan, Ralphie May, Rich Vos, Amy Schumer, Iliza Shlesinger and many more. But the show that may be my favorite of all time was a one-season wonder on VH1 that encapsulated American Idol and The Amazing Race, Bands on the Run.
"Bands on the Run" featured four independent rock bands competing against each other for a record deal and a chance at “stardom.” Flickerstick, a band from Texas, emerged as the winner of the show, captivating viewers with their unique blend of alternative and pop-rock music. Throughout the series, Flickerstick showcased their emotionally-charged live performances, charismatic stage presence, and strong songwriting abilities. They connected with the audience and judges alike through their infectious enthusiasm and ability to create a connection with their fans. Flickerstick's determination, talent, and the compelling nature of their music ultimately propelled them to victory, securing them the record deal and cementing their status as the champions of "Bands on the Run." Included in the show’s trek across America, the bands made a stop in Cleveland and if I hadn’t been in on the show before, I was definitely in after getting to see these bands in a bunch of the most familiar places of my youth as they graced different stages at rock clubs in Cleveland.
Episode 4 was the Cleveland episode, and it wasn’t even that overly flattering, if memory serves, but I loved seeing my hometown in the spotlight, especially as I was finishing my fourth year in the city of Boston and missing home more than ever. They arrived at night in Cleveland and called it a “ghost town,” which, unless there’s a sporting event to concert at the arena, it kind of is.
I saw references to rock clubs like Blind Lemon…
The Rhythm Room where I saw bands like Acid Bath…
Most importantly, my music mecca, The Grog Shop, with a prominent appearance by the inimitable Kathy.
Of course, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the coolest thing was the bonus challenge involved one band calling Derek Hess, the phenomenal artist, who has made some of the most incredible concert posters in Cleveland rock history. Seriously. Google him. Buy his stuff. He’s incredible.
Enough about Cleveland though.
Flickerstick hit me right in the heart with their songs. In Flickerstick there was lots of emotion. They played with dynamic and weren’t afraid to really bring it down. When they would play “Execution by X-Mas Lights” and creep along to the gigantic finish I would get goosebumps every time as lead singer Brandin Lea would hit the big notes. He is a singer who never takes a note off or cheats for a live performance. If it’s recorded, he’s going to go after it and nail it. It was a band of talented musicians, but not a single virtuoso in the group. That’s not an insult because of what they could do together.
Their album is phenomenal. It’s dense with poppy alternative rock hits. “Lift” leads off the album and it’s great. “Beautiful” is the band's closest thing to a hit, but it’s not even close to the only good song. “Coke” and the aforementioned X-Mas Lights are also great.
I’m watching this show and falling in love with this band. I’m still living in Boston, working my summer job, and looking forward to graduating in December, a semester late. I have a new summer friend who moved to Boston from Florida to work in the bars over the summer. It wasn’t a romantic friend (much to my chagrin,) but she was a former swimsuit model who was subletting with our friends down the street. I was perfectly comfortable in the friend zone because, well, I didn’t have any other choice. It’s funny, though, because she was so sweet to me and was a pretty good compliment for my awkwardness.
I remember we were all hopping from party to party on the 4th of July, and someone threw a firecracker in the street; I flinched, ducked, and covered my head in an embarrassing and overreacting fashion. I remember her putting her arm around me, kind of pulling me back up to my feet and kissing me on the cheek as she laughed at me, but not in my face. In my mind it was like when Kate Hudson as Penny Lane laughs at William as she peers through her fingers as the other band aids are “deflowering” the kid.
I felt silly, but rather than roasting me or enabling everyone else to roast me over it, she smoothed the whole thing over and walked arm-in-arm with me the rest of the way down the street. Simultaneously, she used me for cover when overaggressive dudes wanted to hit on the buxom former swimsuit model. I would have loved it to be a summer fling because I was a typical 21-year-old American male, the same way William wanted nothing more than to love Penny Lane. It was kind of perfect the way it turned out, though.
Anyway, she and I both loved “Bands on the Run.” We watched the show together every week. I decided to get Flickerstick tickets for a show at the Middle East in Cambridge. The show was on TV still when I discovered the concert was coming to town. It couldn’t have worked out any more perfectly. The show ended on VH1 on July 8th, and Flickerstick won it. On July 15th, we were packed into a sold-out basement, watching Flickerstick at The Middle East. Because I’m me, I was singing every word along with the band, and because of our non-romantic relationship, I didn’t have to pretend to be too cool to get into this phenomenal music happening before me.
The band opened with “Smile” which is pretty, and quiet with almost no drums. Brandin Lea sings the opening lines and then the music builds and builds until the band explodes with a flourish. The guitar lead hits you hard as the drum fills start flying at you. “And I don’t know if it’ll make it down, but I’m gonna try to slip inside the mind of a clown, into a smile.” They end the song with some sung “YEAHS!” and the crowd sang every one along with the band.
They followed it up with their biggest hit “Beautiful.” I can still hear those guitars blaring out in the low-ceiling Middle East rock club. The crowd jumping up and down slightly as the band sings “You’re so beautiful. You’re so beautiful today!” Look, it’s not going to win any awards for profundity, but hell if it doesn’t work.
In the middle of the set, they brought it down with “Execution by Christmas Lights” straight into their cover of “Fade Into You” by Mazzy Star. They finished with another big pop hit, “Coke” before launching into the 9-minute “Direct Line to the Telepathic.” It’s an epic, to be sure. They finished off the set with the rocker “Hey or When the Drugs Wear Off.”
It was like we had our own TV show celebration party with the band. It was the absolute height of reality TV for me. It was part of a wonderful summer that I needed as I dealt with the uneasy, strange feeling of failing to graduate on time. I was still in school as so many of my friends graduated, celebrated and started careers or moved away. I had this wonderful friend who helped me feel a little less broken who shared an incredible music experience with me that night.
And yeah, Flickerstick won a show.
I don’t know if this will work for you if you weren’t there, but watch this video of the band performing X-mas Lights from 2001 and see if it hits you.