Tanqueray with a Twist

Nil Lara and Beluga Blue win the Tanqueray Rocks talent contest. And then they lose.

Each year, out of the goodness of their promotion-hungry hearts, booze giant Tanqueray sponsors Tanqueray Rocks, a national battle of the bands that yields a compilation CD, juicy prizes, and, for the top five bands, a trip to New York City for the finals.

This year one of the five regional competitions was held in Miami, where a field of 200 bands from the southeastern U.S. was winnowed to three -- Nil Lara and Beluga Blue, Natural Causes, and Voidville -- all of whom happen to hail from Miami. On September 28 each of those bands performed a 30-minute set for a panel of judges at the Stephen Talkhouse on South Beach. When all was sung and done, Nil Lara and Beluga Blue were declared the winners. Prize: $1000, a Gibson guitar, and the trip to New York. The band was booked to fly to the Big Apple next Wednesday to compete for the national title and more prizes, including $10,000, a nationwide tour, and an eighteen-month nonexclusive endorsement deal with Gibson.

Way to go, Nil! End of story.
Except Nil Lara and Beluga Blue aren't going anywhere, at least not courtesy of Tanqueray. Late last week, as the result of a complaint lodged against them, the band was disqualified from the competition for including a Pink Floyd cover in their set. Natural Causes, which placed second at the Talkhouse, will go to New York in Lara's stead. "The rules clearly state," says Chris Robichaud, a spokesman for Tanqueray, "that the set must be all original music."

Lara freely admits his set was not 100 percent original. "Within one of our songs, we got a little excited and put in a bit of Pink Floyd," he says. "I mean, it's not like we don't have original material coming out of our nose." The Floyd jam, he explains, consisted of a few bars lifted from "The Wall," about three-quarters of the way through "Mama's Chant," a Lara original. Total time of the unoriginal intrusion: less than one minute. (As Lara lovers are aware, live versions of "Mama's Chant" typically contain improvised sections from other bands' songs.) "It just happened," says the singer. "I guess we were being artistic."

Lara downplays his disappointment at being disqualified, but he is peeved about the way Tanqueray went about it. "Up until yesterday," Lara said this past Wednesday, "they were saying I was going. They were still sending me stuff for the New York event. We canceled all the gigs we had booked here and booked some shows up there. They should have notified me earlier."

Spokesman Chris Robichaud explains the delay by pointing out that he and other officials were on the road until October 5 -- a week after the Miami competition. "We had to wait to get the videotape of the show, then have the lawyers review it. Then the decision was made, and we let Nil know." A complaint also was lodged against Natural Causes, Robichaud adds, based on the fact that they are sponsored by Budweiser. The Tanqueray rules mavens, however, declared that the sponsorship did not constitute a violation.

Word of Lara's disqualification spread through the local music community like a gin stain on a silk sleeve. And as quickly as they heard about the debacle, insiders were speculating about who betrayed Nil Lara. Many were convinced that a member of one of the rival bands had done the deed.

When he learned of Lara's bad fortune, Natural Causes manager Keith Schantz's feelings were, understandably, mixed. "This sucks for Nil," he said. "And if someone complained -- well, that's totally bogus. We play by the rules, and if Nil won, we're there for him, we pull for him."

Causes singer-songwriter Arlan Feiles was less restrained. "This whole thing's got me on an emotional roller coaster," he confessed. "I mean, I'm psyched to go, but the means were way out of hand. Local musicians stabbing each other in the back! If there was a way to undo it and for Nil to go...." Feiles's voice trailed off, then rose again as he discussed the rumors of a backstabbing rival. "Musicians and club owners should teach this guy a lesson, because we don't need this whiny-baby bullshit. I'm really surprised to see this shit going on. He doesn't deserve to show his face in a club again."

The suspicions of Feiles and others centered on Sturgis Nikides, a member of third-place finisher Voidville. Not surprisingly, Nikides was outraged when the accusations hit home Thursday evening. "None of the musicians who played were involved, I can guarantee you that," he said. "I'd never associate myself with anyone who'd do that. It's heinous bullshit. Someone accused me personally, and that's bullshit, too. I defy anyone at Tanqueray to say that I did it. I haven't contacted them since the event."

Nikides is right, at least on one count. The musicians weren't involved. But their managers were. Specifically, Voidville's own management company, Andrea Starr of New York, which brought the violation to the attention of Tanqueray officials, apparently unbeknownst to members of the band. "We were standing there at the show," confirms the management company's Victoria Rose. "We all went by the rules, and right there in front of everyone, Nil was singing a song that wasn't truly a cover, but is a very well-known song. So we asked for a clarification of the rules. They came back with the clarification." And, eventually, the disqualification. "We play by the rules. I like to go to bed at night and sleep well. I'm glad for Natural Causes and I don't think Voidville should be persecuted for their management's decisions. Life has funny twists, and this business isn't as ethical as it should be. Maybe it's time it should look at itself."

In spite of having had his name dragged through the local-scene mud, Voidville guitarist Nikides insists he's glad the band competed. "We reached a lot of people we don't normally reach," he says. "We came away as winners because we reached that heavy-duty Talkhouse crowd. And we were a dark horse, outsiders. We had nothing to do with it then, and we have nothing to do with it now. But I do feel bad for Nil.

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