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"Pardon my voice, I just came from the flu," said Joshua Stewart of My Brother / My Friend at the start of Round 5 of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase last Thursday. Later, the night's host would use this fact as an opportunity to advocate for the benefits of flu shots. I didn't pay much attention to it, being in general too distracted by a dancer near the front of the crowd who wore a black fedora and kept spinning around. The next morning I woke up with the flu.
Not that I blame My Brother / My Friend. Or, I guess, I blame them, but I don't hold it against them. They were great, and Stewart was full of off-the-cuff, inspirational stage banter, like "Are we having fun?" and "Please support local music for all eternity, for all of your days." Judge Stephen Neeper liked their "ambient guitar sounds" and "American Chris Martin feel," and Stacie Mack dubbed it "aggressive hippie music."
Next up was Shawn James and the Shapeshifters, whose stage presence was as ominous as their sound. Their banjo player wore a Darth Vader T-shirt, and I've never seen a bass player with longer hair. They played mostly songs from the Shapeshifter Trilogy, James' three consecutive concept EPs that tell Herzogian tales of nature and savagery. But there were also covers: "This next song is a voodoo song written by a man from Australia," he claimed at one point, and that's exactly what it sounded like.
The Vail played last, which is only fitting for a band so preoccupied by death and ruin. Neeper wrote "Rock-Fucking-Solid" a total of three times in his notes on their set, while Judge "Big" John Miller called it "very loud." Tim Jones agreed, deeming it a "technically proficient aural assault," and Stacie Mack went even further, writing, "I feel like I should thank this band for the intimate vibrations they gave me, because they were louder than the second coming of Christ."
The night's winner, however, was John Neal Rock & Roll, who even brought their own announcer. Neal wore a black leather jacket over a white undershirt and sported a cowlick that flicked back and forth as he played. He looked like Richie Valens, or like a character from "The Outsiders." It was awesome. He said things like, "We aren't the lucky ones, y'all are," which, now that I think about it, isn't a nice thing to say. The band's other star was its sax player, who wore a cowboy hat and jammed with determination and proud grit.
John Neal and his band will go on to compete in the finals at 8 p.m. Friday, March 7, at Revolution, along with the other semifinal winners:
Peckerwolf, who impressed the judges with pure energy, as well as what "Big" John Miller called "The right mix of riffs, beards and asscracks."
John Willis, urbane and lighthearted by comparison, who played piano-rock with humor and back-up singers.
Mad Nomad, who snapped guitar strings and made a wall of distortion seem subtle.
Duckstronaut, who slayed the crowd with your typical washboard-dulcimer-mohawk combo.