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Last week's round of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase, the last of the semifinals before this Friday's finals concert, was opened by Pine Bluff singer-songwriter Katie Johnson, who claims on Facebook that she aims "not just to make feel-good music but to make feel-everything music." Judge Joe Holland, of last year's showcase winners Mad Nomad, called her a "pretty damn good songwriter" in his ballot. "She's got the voice of a star," judge Mitchell Crisp wrote. "A real class act."
It was another cold night in the River Market, with the occasional passing cars spraying mushy ice up onto the sidewalk and patio, where concertgoers huddled around cigarettes and avoided gusts of freezing wind. Johnson's lyrics echoed through the venue, seeming to grow increasingly, bizarrely intimate as her set wore on: "Inside your soul is the only place I know," she sang at one point. "You'll never be alone." I think I gulped.
Next up was Fayetteville's Comfortable Brother, most of whose members were previously in Conway band Don't Stop Please. Despite some technical difficulties, their set was the night's most purely fun, all low-brow psychedelia and back-porch indie rock. They made lots of jokes and traded instruments and showed off with what Holland called "some fuckin' sweet guitar solos." "Not boring at all," in judge Derek Brooks' words. "Flippantly adolescent," in Mitchell Crisp's.
After what appeared to be the most complex soundcheck of the night — especially surprising, given his total instrument tally consisted of one acoustic guitar — singer-songwriter Michael Leonard Witham took the stage third. Someone standing next to me pointed out that he looked like an earnest, young Matthew McConaughey. He wore a harmonica around his neck, in a metal holster like Bob Dylan. His songs invoked failed relationships in Saline County, most of which seemed to be his fault ("Some nice 'I'm kind of a dick' honesty in his songwriting," as judge Shayne Gray put it). The whole thing felt like a scene from the movie "Inside Llewyn Davis."
The last band of the night was Little Rock's Enchiridion, who Mitchell Crisp described as a "perfect metal band." The other judges agreed: "Arkansas should be proud of these guys," Gray wrote. "Great balance of power, finesse, timing and groove," said Holland. Crisp: "The drunk dude in the audience playing air guitar seals the deal."
Enchiridion will go on to compete in the finals at 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 6, at Revolution, along with the other semifinal winners:
Open Fields, which makes hypnotic, slow-building psych-rock filtered through prismatic layers of reverb and delay.
Ghost Bones, the showcase's most danceable band, specializing in jagged, four-on-the-floor post-punk.
Becoming Elephants, the Conway-based progressive metal outfit featuring a saxophone player in place of a singer.
American Lions, makers of indie rock rooted in what they call "humble hearts and Southern charm."