Through five years of running the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase, I know when I see that spark, that special something that consumes the stage when a band is clicking and giving a performance that's going to win them the title as that year's best original music band in the state.
Ten minutes into Grandpa's Goodtime Fandango's set Saturday at Juanita's Cantina Ballroom, I knew I was seeing something special.
The band sensed something, too.
"Yeah, the energy was really high that night," drummer Brian "Stickman" Hickman said Tuesday. "Everyone was really feeling it, things were really tight. We were really in top form Saturday."
Still, only a matter of a few points separated all four bands Saturday. Lost and Found, featuring the amazing vocals of Hannah Blaylock; the party rock sound of the PoeBoy Society, and the pop-rock mix of the Sara Thomas Band struck a chord with the fans and made the six judges squirm as they tried to determine a winner. In the end, it went to the foursome from Fayetteville, GGF, whose individual talents were as obvious as the whole. Bassist D.J. Murphy was simply amazing with both his slap-happy funk style of playing and with his footwork.
Hickman and I both agreed that Saturday's performance far exceeded GGF's initial appearance in the showcase, a semifinal win on Jan. 29. It was no doubt better for Murphy.
"That first time we played was the first time ever he had forgotten his bass strap and we had to borrow one from the band that played before us," Hickman said. "Still, his bass strap kept following off his shoulder. That's why he was sitting down for that first show we played.
"This time we were better prepared mentally and rehearsal-wise. We made it a point to go up and show our best."
Wai-Kay Carenbauer was more animated than usual in his guitar stylings. Frontman Karl "Silk" Coleman displayed impressive vocal range, shook his dreadlocks in dizzying fashion and added a strong percussive edge, particular on the closing number, "Sweet," part of the band's funked-up five-song set.
If you haven't seen Grandpa's Goodtime Fandango in a while, they've reduced their lineup in half from the eight-man outfit that we saw at Sticky Fingerz a couple of years back. The current foursome are all original members, but the sound has moved more toward avant-garde funk instead of all-over-the-map jam. The guys range in age from 23-25; Carenbauer is the son of Michael Carenbauer, guitarist extraordinaire at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Hickman and Murphy are also in another Fayetteville band, Confunktion Junction, and Hickman also privately teaches drums and percussion to 17 students and helps out at schools in Northwest Arkansas. Murphy is in grad school at the UA studying philosophy.
For winning, Grandpa's receives 10 hours of recording time from Doghouse Studios, a $200 Guitar Center certificate, $200 in food from Trio's, website design by Kelly Franklin, a photo shoot by the Times' Brian Chilson, a free ad in the Times, and a guaranteed spot in Riverfest. Look for a few more Showcase bands to find a spot in the May Riverfest lineup as well.
Juanita's drew its sixth-straight full house for the finals since the Times took over sponsorship with KMJX-FM, Magic 105. It was good to see Sticky Fingerz manager Chris King and Go Fast guitarist Scott Diffee among the huge crowd.
Thanks go out to Juanita's music coordinator Erin Hurley for his help and in letting the Times have five prime nights for the Showcase. Each semifinal night drew a huge crowd, a trend for the past several years.
Also, thanks to our finals judges: Lance Lemonds of Magic 105, Sandra Stuart from Alltel Arena (subbing for Michael Marion, who had George Strait duties), Kevin Haynie from local band Mr. Meaner, Mike Proveaux from 2002 winner Runaway Planet, Riverfest interim (let's lose that part of the title) executive director DeAnna Shannon and Rich D'wiggins from the Bugtussle boys, who subbed at the last second for an ailing Stephen Koch, our "Arkansongs" columnist.
A special thanks goes to Magic 105 program director Tom Wood, who helps me immensely each year. This year, he put together promos with clips of every band that sounded fanstastic over the airwaves. No doubt that helped boost attendance. (Quite a few folks were angry at being turned away at the door Saturday. I warned everyone to arrive early.)
The senior high classes of 1969, ’75 and ’86 and all in between and around were entertained with a completely satisfying four-plus hours of “San Francisco Fest 2016” featuring Bay area natives Journey and The Doobie Brothers, with special guest Dave Mason.
Eight years. I’ve really been “at the job” of newspapers for much longer, it just focused on entertainment during these past eight years. Starting next week, it will focus on sports. Again. Where I started eons ago.
Where was I, the sports lover, the guy who couldn’t wait for Dickey-Stephens to open, a few of you may ask? I was checking out one of my other loves: a local, original music show at Juanita’s that the University of Central Arkansas Honors College had pull