Morris County band advances in Hard Rock Cafe's Battle of the Bands competition

Tucked beneath an abandoned manufacturing plant, behind a gym and off Route 46 in Rockaway Borough, four friends fiddle with their instruments in a tiny practice space with mediocre acoustics.

The quartet has paid $50 to rent the room for two hours one Monday night, shortly after getting off work. They check the amps and mikes and run through a set, ignoring a passable rendition of "Sweet Child O’ Mine" that bleeds through the walls from the adjacent — and supposedly soundproof — room. The four just play their original music a bit louder.

This is the The Hollow, a Morris County band trying to follow in the venerable tradition of Jersey groups that begin in local pubs and go on to fill famous arenas.

And they just got one step closer.

Band members James Vilade, Brian Wilson, Stephen Babula and Kevin Barry were informed Tuesday they are one of 40 groups to survive the third round of judging in Hard Rock Cafe’s Battle of the Bands competition. The winning band will open for Bon Jovi in London’s Hyde Park in June.

Now, their fate is in your hands. Online voters will send four from the 40 to Hard Rock Calling in Hyde Park, a massive music festival. Voters will then choose one of those four to open for Bon Jovi.

"It would mean the world to us," said Wilson, The Hollow’s lead guitarist. "It would validate the 15 or 16 years we’ve put into music. We’ve been climbing the ladder and we’re starting to get some endorsement deals, and the phones are starting to ring, but I feel this would totally push us to the next level."

Recognition is the currency in which blossoming bands trade — and a gig like Hyde Park could provide invaluable cachet. The three bands that do not open for Bon Jovi will still perform before tens of thousands, and they’ll be on the bill with Rod Stewart and Stevie Nicks.

"We’d be happy just playing in the parking lot," joked Babula, the bassist.

The band is influenced by an eclectic group of musicians, ranging from The Police to Buckethead, though you won’t hear much Sting or Praxis on their self-titled debut album, much of which can be heard on their website

What you will hear is a sound reminiscent of 1990s alternative rock — a soulful mix of Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam with a bit of U2 thrown in.

"They had an interesting sort of connection for me to a group called Love," said Steven Van Zandt, speaking of the 1960s Los Angeles rock band. "A certain blues and a folk sound, combining to create something new. A certain vibe where the music becomes universal, but it’s also very personal."

Van Zandt, "Little Steven" of E Street Band fame, along with Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy and representatives from Live Nation, Hard Rock and Absolute Radio, whittled the list down to 40 from 68 bands in the contest’s third round.

But it wasn’t easy to get to that point. The Hollow first submitted two songs to the Hard Rock competition. Once those were deemed acceptable, the band was pitted against three others in a battle of the bands at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square. It was one of 68 regional competitions taking place around the world. Those performances were recorded and sent to judges.

The Hollow’s journey is far more familiar than their music: four married guys in their 30s, struggling not to make it big, but to make it at all.

"You always hear about a band paying their dues and playing these small clubs, and it is tough, and it is a real job even though a lot of people don’t see it that way," said Vilade, the lead singer. "But it’s been fun. It has shaped us as musicians and made us more humble. We’ve been that ‘nobody band.’ We’ve played for no money."

Humble beginnings at local clubs are not all these Hard Rock hopefuls share with Bon Jovi. The Hollow’s only single to receive regular radio play is "Run Away." Bon Jovi broke through with "Runaway," winning a contest in the early 1980s on WAPP, a now-defunct New York radio station.

"It would be funny to fly all the way to London to open for another band from Jersey," mused Vilade.

It would also be an enormous opportunity, Van Zandt said.

"That’s all you can want as a band, is to be exposed, to be heard," he said. "Then people decide for themselves."

Voting at ends April 25.


The Hollow, a four-member band from Morris County, hopes to follow other New Jersey groups who went from playing pubs to filling arenas. The band found out Tuesday it’s among 40 groups vying to open for Bon Jovi in London in June. Band members are:

Stephen Babula
Bass player
Age: 30
Hometown: Towaco
Current residence: Rockaway Township
Occupation: Art director, Cinquino and Co., Woodland Park

Kevin Barry
Age: 38
Hometown: Morristown
Current residence: Bernardsville
Occupation: Branch vice president of Coldwell Banker, Metuchen

James Vilade
Singer, rhythm guitarist, front man
Age: 31
Hometown: Bernardsville
Current residence: Randolph
Occupation: Salesman for Hunterdon Brewing Co., Phillipsburg

Brian Wilson
Lead guitar, electric guitar
Age: 30
Hometown: Mendham
Current residence: Succasunna
Occupation: Commercial real estate broker, Resource Realty of northern New Jersey, Parsippany; guitar instructor

- By Dan Goldberg

Why shouldn't a New Jersey band travel to London to open for another Jersey band? Morristown's The Hollow are in the running to do just that. The band was selected from thousands to participate in a battle of the bands at Hard Rock in New York City and came out victorious. From there they entered a field of 68 winners in the Hard Rock Battle of the Bands contest and on Tuesday, found out they had made it to the final 40. Bands from all around the world are divided into four regions, with the winner of each gaining a stage spot at the Hard Rock Calling festival at Hyde Park in London. The overall winner will play on the same main stage as Stevie Nicks, Rod Stewart and yes, Bon Jovi. (Video by Michael Monday/The Star-Ledger)

The Hollow performs their song Run Away
Morristown's The Hollow performs their single "Run Away" at a practice space in Rockaway. The song is one of two submitted that gained them entry into the Hard Rock Battle of the Bands contest. The winner of the contest earns a main stage spot at Hard Rock Calling in London. (Video by Michael Monday/The Star-Ledger)

The Hollow performs their song Take You There
Morristown's The Hollow performs their single "Take You There" at a practice space in Rockaway. The song is one of two submitted that gained them entry into the Hard Rock Battle of the Bands contest. The winner of the contest earns a main stage spot at Hard Rock Calling in London. (Video by Michael Monday/The Star-Ledger)

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