Back in the day, the group of Illinois Wesleyan University students who became Red Scarves had a thing about entering battle-of-the-bands-type competitions.

And then coming out on top.

In the fall of 2012, the first version of the band, as yet unnamed, entered their alma mater's long-running, once-a-semester talent show series Undercover.

Undercover No. 21, to be precise, where they snared first place against a field of nearly a dozen other acts.

In the spring of 2015, the second, and current, incarnation of the band — now officially christened Red Scarves — made a last-minute entry into the Castle Theatre's second Battle of the Bands showdown.

And, yes, they triumphed again, to both their surprise (they hadn't even heard of the contest until 24 hours before) and their professional delight (read on).

The fruits of that second victory are being felt to this day, nearly 2½ years later, when Red Scarves has tied itself around the Chicago indie rock-pop scene.

They're coming home, where it all began, for a free album release performance at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in The Coffeehouse in uptown Normal.

"Winning the Battle of the Bands won us recording time at (Bloomington's) Bombsight Studios, and it allowed us to record the 'Red Scarves' EP," says co-founder Ayethaw Tun, who handles lead guitar, bass, vocals and, if musical duty calls, mandolin. 

"It encouraged us to all pursue the band at a professional level, and create 'Sort of Scarlet'."

Joining Tun, a Spring Valley native, in that pursuit: fellow IWU alums Braden Poole, a B-N native, on vocals/guitar; Ryan Donlin, from suburban St. Louis, on bass/lead guitar/vocals; Eric Novak, late of Oswego, on keyboards/sax; and another B-N native, Robby Kuntz, on drums/percussion. 

"Sort of Scarlet," Red Scarves' first full-blown album, is the CD being released to a hometown crowd this weekend.

The band's origins can be traced back five years ago to an IWU class devoted to the words and music of Bob Dylan, and taught by Ronald Emmons.

In that classroom situation, Tun and Poole crossed paths with Jonas Wightman and Alan Russian, who became the folk-rock-leaning forebears of Red Scarves.

Though no one was a Dylan fan or scholar going in, says Tun, they all emerged a semester later instilled with the desire to follow the course namesake's lead in writing meaningful music, with lyrics, "that when you broke them down were like poetry."

The foursome was further inspired to pool their newfound inspiration into a band ... even if it was one without a name.

It is no small coincidence, then, that the quartet won that Undercover talent contest with a rendering of "It Ain't Me, Babe."

"It was a surprise," Tun admits. "None of us had ever been on stage before in a group setting. But the crowd responded to our playing and singing and they inspired us to keep going."

For the next two years, the quartet gigged around town, finding a recurring home at Firehouse Pizza & Pub in Normal. "None of us knew anything about marketing, so everything we did was by word of mouth," admits Tun.

By 2013, they'd taken the name Red Scarves, partly courtesy of a "lucky scarf my mother got for me when I was born; in retrospect, the name isn't really indicative of our music now."

But it's stuck ... all the way through the group's second incarnation, which arrived in 2014, when Wightman and Russian decided to move on for various reasons, and Donlin, Novak and Kuntz stepped in.

En route, the band's sound metamorphosed from harmonic acoustic folk-rock into the plugged-in indie pop-rock sound they now embrace, seasoned with all manner of what Tun calls "eccentric flourishes." 

Those can include anything from classical embellishments (four of the five are classically trained) to impromptu jazz improv ("Sort of Scarlet," says Tun, is the band's color-coded homage to Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," of which "we are all fans").

The album, over a year in the making, has further IWU cred in the fact that the bass, drum and vocal tracks were recorded by alum Dave Rossi at Bombsight Studios; and the mixing and mastering were handled by another alum, Joseph Bakke.

For good measure, string players from IWU's School of Music are featured on the album, and IWU grad Kate Ford shot all the band's publicity photos.

"The album is like ’60s rock guitar music," promises Tun, "but with our eccentric flourishes."

They can be sampled via physical copies of "Sort of Scarlet," which will be on sale at Saturday's show; or as pay-what-you-want downloads at the band's Facebook page,



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