By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jul 30, 2009 at 11:36 AM

Judging Milwaukee Downtown's Battle of the Bands at River Rhythms in Pere Marquette Park Wednesday night wasn't as easy as I expected. That's because while I was primed for a slate of cover bands, instead I got a slate of bands working primarily on their own music.

The first, MI5, was cover-heavy, but did play one original that showed some promise and made me wish it had ditched a cover of The Police's "Driven to Tears" and replaced it with another of its own tunes.

Next up was Signalfire, a hard rockin' quartet that looked and sounded like a band. The music was all original, I think, and the band was tight and on task.

Then came Burlington 16-year-old Eric McKinney, who performed on acoustic guitar and with a drummer for support. McKinney's well-written songs were bolstered by his unassuming charm and once he gets more gigs under his belt, he'll be unstoppable. His Dropkick Murphys T-shirt impressed my fellow judges Kevin Brandt and Banshee Music's Jef Horrigan, a Dropkicks collaborator.

Rapper Melissa Czarnik impressed with her R&B, hip-hop blend build on the sound of Eric Mire's crackin' live band before The Katz Sass arrived to play a set of electric blues.

Honky Tonk-itis -- in full western swing gear -- closed out the night of 15-minute sets with a slate of songs laced with good humor.

We judges picked McKinney as the winner and Czarnik and Signalfire rounded out the top three.

Seeing so much original music on tap was the evening's most pleasant surprise.

Kudos Milwaukee Downtown and Westown.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.