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Damn Arkansan takes round one of Showcase 

In midst of heartbreaking night, Fayetteville band shines through.

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The Showcase started this year under exceptionally tragic circumstances. Mason Mauldin, a pilot for Central Flying Service and a longtime fixture on the Little Rock music scene who'd played in Sugar & The Raw and Big Boots, died in a plane crash Thursday. He was supposed to play the showcase that night with his band Collin Vs. Adam. About an hour before the show was supposed to start, the folks at Stickyz got a frantic call from a family member of one of the guys in the band, notifying us that they would not be playing because one of the members had died.

We had no idea what to do. The other three bands and I talked about postponing the show, and they were all fine with that. But after further discussion with the judges, bands and Stickyz staff, we decided that since everyone was already there and two of the bands and their friends and family members had traveled more than three hours for the show, to go ahead. The common thread among everyone was that as a musician, you always want the show to go on. It was a relief to have that confirmed the next day by Mike Motley of Collin Vs. Adam.

Mauldin's passing is an enormous blow to a tight-knit community of musicians and artists. We've lost a gifted musician and for many, a dear friend. Please read this week's Observer column for more about Mauldin's life.

Fayetteville's Damn Arkansan won the first round unanimously on the strength of its high energy set and a sound that fuses early Little Feat and later era Pavement. That might sound like it wouldn't work, but the band makes it seem effortless.

Starting off the night was Annalisa Nutt, a singer/songwriter who was accompanied by Sean Michel on the djembe. Nutt is without question one of the best — if not the best — singers who has played the Showcase in its 21 years. She also can write a confessional weeper that's as sad as they come. She was in total control of her pure, strong voice, which guest judge Bobby Missile called "powerful and angelic." Guest judge Bill Solleder was impressed too, but wrote that he'd like to hear more hooks and a little more joy in her music.

The Trey Hawkins Band played next, and brought to the stage a heaping helping of amped-up Red Dirt ruckus. Judge Grayson Shelton noted that Little Rock gets a lot of similar acts that come through, and the THB could hang with any of them. "Not a lot of pretense," he wrote, "just good beer-drinking country music."

Damn Arkansan played last and obviously made a big impression on all of the judges, who noted the singers' tight harmonies and unrelenting energy. "They're like a rockin' Uncle Tupelo," wrote Judge Mandy McBryde.

Round 2 lineup

Tom & Hebron: Brothers Tom and Hebron Chester have a spooky-good grasp on '70s singer/songwriter rock. Think Elton John, The Band, Wings, Emmitt Rhodes and the like. Check out "Ridge Runner," which hits so many classic FM sweet spots. They must've spent hours with their parents' record collection, and you can hear how fully they've absorbed those dusty grooves.

Flint Eastwood: This hip-hop/indie rock five-piece has only been around since last year, but they've wasted no time, releasing an EP and a self-titled full-length in the span of five months. While the band's influences are all over the place (Kid Cudi, Nirvana, N.E.R.D., Tool, Blink 182, Sade, U.G.K. and Rage Against the Machine), Flint Eastwood nonetheless melds these into a cohesive, if uncommon sound. Exhibit A: the soulful, moody "Stars."

Stephen Neeper Band: Post alt-rock electrified blues is the name of the game with the Stephen Neeper Band. The group's namesake is a virtuoso guit-wailer, to boot. Think Cream by way of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, especially on the blistering "Bad Romance." The band is fresh off another showcase victory, having just won the Waka Winter Classic at Stickyz, thus securing a spot up on Mulberry Mountain at Wakarusa.

The Bad Years: Anyone who had a huge weakness for the late '80s/early '90s East Bay punk scene (such as yours truly) will probably dig The Bad Years in a big way. The young band — most of them are still in high school — has a sound that's heavily inspired by Jawbreaker, early Green Day, Samiam, Pinhead Gunpowder and the like. They weave in local influences as well, The Big Cats namely. Check out "Nowhere in Sight," for a catchy nugg of buzzsaw pop-punk.

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