The finalists of Beta Hi Fi 2015 at World Cafe Live | Photos by John Vettese

I’ve been a judge on World Cafe Live’s annual Beta Hi-Fi competition for several years now, and it’s always a treat to meet the Philly artists that come up through its ranks – past winners have included Commonwealth Choir and The Districts. Last night, the finals of Beta Hi-Fi 2015 were held, and the talent was at a higher level than ever before.

South Jersey power trio Final Warning got the show started with a set of hooky modern rock / punk nuggets in the vein of Green Day (with a bit of Weezer and American Hi-Fi thrown in). They didn’t reinvent the wheel by any stretch, but they made sure the wheel was expertly-crafted, with tight playing, hooky songwriting and charismatic banter. They walked away with passes to Delaware’s annual Dewey Beach Music Conference.

Cheltenham based four-piece Family Volleyball followed, and collectively knocked the socks off the judging panel as well as the other bands on the bill. They’re all either 15 or 16 years old and play intricate and complex fuzz punk, with hints of surf pop and twinkly emo. Moments recalled The Cure, The Feelies, Everyone Everywhere and Into It. Over It., and their songs mixed in expressive vocal numbers with instrumental jams. My favorite part of their set: one of the guitarists broke a crucial string during the last song and, rather than panic, took off his instrument. We all thought he was going to smash his guitar, but he did something just as badass: dropped it to the floor and proceeded to slam dance into his bandmates as the song played out. The walked away winning a consultation session with Charterhouse Management and a World Cafe Live gig during the 2015-16 season.

Widow Maker Social Club was next, and they sounded big. The Philly six-piece makes massive pop anthems in the vein of fun. and Imagine Dragons, and while some moments sold the drama a little too hard, the band overall were exceptional and entertaining, totally primed for some next-level stages. They employed a second floor tom for added energy during the really hard-hitting songs, and the songs were totally dynamic, with quiet quiets building into the loudest louds, songs ebbing and flowing dreamily into one another. The band’s most recent release is the March 2015  EP Get Closer; they won two hours of studio time at R&M Studios and a production package at DiscMakers.

Full disclosure: I first met Assad Khafre, frontman of Philly band Those People, when he interned at WXPN. He was a friendly dude, shy and kind of quiet, typing away at a work station over in the programming department. Onstage last night, his commanding and charismatic presence took me by surprised and totally knocked me out. He’s an incredible singer, an animated performer – where everybody else I’d seen during the night so far was somewhat confined by their instruments, he actually dances and moves restlessly around the stage – and his between song banter was quite funny. The band is full of sharp players, and they’re pretty locked in as far as their performance goes, though their songs are a bit stylistically all over the place. That’s cool, though, since having Khafre act as the centrifugal force makes the variety make sense. Plus they did a vibrant cover of “All I Need” from Radiohead’s In Rainbows that I might have loved more than the original. Those People won a Gigspots promo package, including a slot at their music showcase in Lancaster, plus a Zipcar membership to get them there.

Closing out the night was Ceramic Animal, and in their eclectic set I could hear traces of Todd Rundgren and Hall & Oates, Dr. Dog and The Doors, even some riffy Black Keys moments coming out of Arcade Fire dreamscapes. They’re great players, though their recordings are sort of limited right now. Good thing they walked away from Beta Hi-Fi 2015 with 10 hours of recording time at Studio Crash.

Check out a gallery of photos from last night’s Beta Hi-Fi finals below.