By Andrew Stellmon
Photos by Matt Mjestrik and Shannon Claire
May 22, 2018
The following introduction was read on-air during the Monday, May 14, 2018 edition of Hear Nebraska FM, preceding a live performance by Universe Contest.
Quite enough pressure has been foisted upon Universe Contest since it first vied for intergalactic supremacy. It happened right away, with the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award for Best New Band in 2012. They’ve been called “the city’s best band,” one that, at one point, was “threatening to break out into a full-scale indie music phenomenon.” And on a local level, it’s easy to see how this happens; the prog rock band’s dazzlingly-lit and daringly-costumed live shows would and still do draw thick, exuberant party crowds in the relatively small Nebraska music pond. Its dauntingly expansive and unique compositions have drawn the magnifying eye of nearly every local music critic in sight — me and Hear Nebraska perhaps most fervently.
At many points in its past, Universe Contest looked and acted the part of hometown darling destined for the limelight, but its current demeanor reflects something frontman Tim Carr told the Daily Nebraskan in November 2017. “My whole reason for being in this band is to go on weird adventures with my best friends,” he said. It was weeks before the release of Get Cot Livin’, their third full-length record and long-awaited return to the raw, riff-and-romp roots that launched the band into vertical trajectory.
The lot of them — Carr, co-frontman Joe Humpal, bassist Jacob Ledbetter, and the Jordans Ellis and Elfers on violin and drums respectively — seem more relaxed and focused than ever before because of that fact. Humpal and Carr are the same ol’ recognizable songwriters: the former finding larger meaning in the minutiae, the latter bumping and grinding from seriousness to jokiness and back again. Ellis’ nimble and chasing violin adds its own texture in unique ways, whether by classical interlude or thematic expansion. Elfers and Ledbetter form one of the most sonically muscular rhythm sections in Nebraska music.
The UC experience is still not without the off-beat capers: the group shouting, the smoke-and-light show, Carr’s crass, loosely-regulated observations flying free. Now stripped of the expectations, it feels totally natural that the band is still having more fun than you are.
Now, here’s Universe Contest with “Club Kids”
Andrew Stellmon is the former host of “Hear Nebraska FM.” Tune in to the program with new hosts Sam Crisler and Ben Buchnat every Monday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on KZUM.