Wednesday night, as another American Idol hopeful had his dreams of stardom crushed, seven groups of Yalies took the stage at Toad’s Place to put their rock-and-roll dreams on the line at the annual Spring Fling Battle of the Bands.

Now don’t laugh, but the Battle had more in common with American Idol than you might think. Just like the fresh-faced youngsters on Idol, most of the evening’s bands were relative newcomers on a mission to prove they belonged. Like Idol, there was also lot at stake: the top three finishers earned the right to rock Old Campus on the afternoon of Spring Fling, playing right before Wilco and Nappy Roots.

And then there were the judges. As a grizzled vet of the Yale music scene with something of an arrogance problem, I was ready to pounce on whatever unsuspecting act drew my ire. And what good is a Simon without a Paula? Fortunately, Dean Brodhead (who I imagine would look rather fetching in a brunette wig and a dress) spent the evening sitting at my right.

So who shined? Who bombed? And would the sexual tension bubbling under my witty banter with the Dean be obvious to the crowd?

Contestant 1: Smokeshifter

First up was Smokeshifter, a modern rock quartet. Though I was a bit skeptical at first, the band won me over by the end of its four-song set, making the group the sleeper of the night. Smokeshifter is simply a bunch of good musicians playing well-crafted songs: in any case, it’s nice to hear heavy rock nowadays that doesn’t involve rapping. While Smokeshifter’s stage act was a bit cliched, at least they were trying (which is more than I can say for some of the bands). One last note to bassist Brandon Lotti (SY ’04): dude, if you really want to rock, take off the Yale sweatshirt.

Contestant 2: Sonido Unidad

Next up was Sonido Unidad, a ten-piece Afro-Cuban jazz ensemble whose members come from all over the Yale and New Haven communities. You know the American Idol contestant that seems just a little too old and out of their element? That’s Sonido Unidad. But there’s a reason that they seem out of place: they blow everyone else out of the water.

Every musician in Sonido Unidad is phenomenal, and judging by their stage presence, they have a great time playing together. The group is constantly gigging around New Haven, and I recommend checking them out as soon as you get the chance. At the very least, isn’t it fun to watch an audience try to salsa when they clearly don’t know how?

Contestant 3: The AV Club

Just as entertaining was the AV Club, a post-punk trio with crack songwriting and tight harmonies. With guitarist/singer Aaron Carr channeling Elvis Costello right down to the glasses, the group is a blast to watch. And in the end, isn’t that what it comes down to? If “punk” bands today were this good, I might not want to shoot the television when I watch MTV. Plus, I am a big fan of any band whose drummer is too big for his kit.

Contestant 4: Michelle Shaprow

Wow, three quality bands in a row to start off. Unfortunately, Michelle Shaprow quickly annihilated both my excitement and my will to live. Taking the stage with a backup dancer who thought it was a cool idea to act like a robot and a guy who stood onstage filming the whole mess, Shaprow proceeded to sing over a CD for what was the longest 20 minutes of my life.

Apparently Shaprow (in the final victory of image over substance) has some kind of record deal with Warner Brothers. While I imagine that the company thinks they have found the girl destined to follow in the electroclash footsteps of Fischerspooner, I don’t believe it for a second. If this is the future of music, sign me up for I-banking: I might as well make some money if I’m selling my soul.

Contestant 5: The Spectacles

If Shaprow is the hot girl on American Idol who causes you to cringe the instant she opens her mouth, The Spectacles represent the guy who comes into the audition wearing M.C. Hammer pants and a clown wig on the hopes that his uniqueness and endearing nature will be enough to pass him through to Hollywood. While the band’s low-fi, goofball rock aspires to reach that of They Might Be Giants or The Moldy Peaches, the group doesn’t quite have its act together. The band members at least seemed to be enjoying themselves onstage and provide an interesting twist on an age-old riddle: if an acoustic guitar is played but no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Contestant 6: G Band Free

Next up was the biggest surprise of the evening: G Band Free. The only hip-hop act on the bill, they had the best vibe and crowd response of any band of the night. MCs Will Johnson and Jon Coplon showed impressive skills, while the four-piece backing band did an admirable job, even if their sound seemed muddy at times. While G Band Free could use a little more variety in their tunes, it’s tough to argue with a live hip-hop band that can get your ass shaking even under the watchful gaze of Dean Brodhead.

Contestant 7: Jigsaw

The night’s last band, Jigsaw, took the stage with a large, vocal crowd of friends in tow. However, I wonder if they really knew what they were screaming for. Jigsaw’s performance, in the words of Simon, left me asking “so what?” Jigsaw is the Yale version of Idol’s hunky guy with the pleasant voice: all the elements for greatness are there, but it just doesn’t quite come together.

Don’t get me wrong: I really want to like Jigsaw, and there is nothing wrong with the band per se. The band’s musicians are proficient, their stage presence energetic. The problem is it just doesn’t gel. The band needs to take more time in rehearsal to listen to each other if their instrumentals are to become anything more than a cycle of solos and composed lines. Jigsaw is definitely a band to watch in the future, though.

And the winner is….

In the end, Sonido Unidad were the evening’s rightful champions, followed by G Band Free and Jigsaw. So be sure and check out all three bands during Spring Fling on April 28. ‘Cause lets be honest: nothing is better on a sunny afternoon than good music and an open bar.

What? There’s no open bar? Bummer.