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With a big mess of dreadlocks wrapped in a bun and wearing jeans and a beat-up T-shirt, Jonathan Wilkins kicked off his round-five-winning set on Friday with his best song. It's called “Black Folks,” and he sings it in a deliberate, almost talking blues style. That lends the lyrics a refreshing matter-of-factness, which helps when you're singing things like “Black folks invented country music, rock 'n' roll” or “Elvis Presley never meant shit to me.”
Say what? Yep, he's trying to provoke, but not simply for provocation's sake. Think less polemic and more history lesson — a quick correction to the slights to black folks throughout pop music history (later, he makes reference to offers of cars and clothes instead of song royalties). And lest you question his background or motivations, he gets there first. How's this for a hook? “I'm your local, militant, middle-class African-American, born in the dark ages of the Reagan administration.”
That's Wilkins in a nutshell. Dry, confessional, confrontational. But you could miss all that and still bop along happily. He's a deft guitar player, with a knack for rhythmic lines. And he's supported by one of the baddest-ass rhythm sections in town. Matt Floyd, on loan from Smoke Up Johnny and still looking cooler than you, sounds perfectly at home in the no frills folk-bounce and, of course, in the raucous rock. And Will Boyd, the American Princes expert guitarist, might be the best drummer in town.
As usual, the other acts showed out, too. In the opening slot, the Weisenheimers were brash and freewheeling. They announced songs with explanations like, “This next song is about poop.”
Their pop-punk had folks pogoing up close to the stage and throwing devil horns during guitar solos. Guest judge Brad Williams aptly summed up the band: “Flying V's, flying middle fingers and rock 'n' roll in your face!” And Jason Tedford called “Dirty” Sean Causey the “best shirtless drummer in the showcase.”
In the third slot of the night, North Little Rock's Riverboat Crime offered a set no one from last year's Showcase would remember. But like last year, lead singer and guitarist Josh Stoffer showed off his estimable pipes and nimble guitar work. Nicole Boddington praised the band's “passionate performance” and “theatrics.”
The highlight of the set came when Stoffer called me out for describing the band, in my preview coverage, as “big, bright unironic pop-rock with hints of blues.” He wanted credit for more than hints. And after he laid his guitar flat and teased a thick blues groove out of the band's “You're Gonna Burn” with his slide, he's forever more “big, bright unironic pop-rock colored with heaps of blues.”
Special note: Stoffer's generously offering up the band's debut album, “Walking Shoes,” for free download on Rock Candy this week.
In the midnight hour, the hip-hop band Apples and Spades closed it down impressively. The young quartet — bass, drums, guitar and a rapper — all donned business suits. Their set, however, was not merely a workmanlike performance. In only their second, maybe third, concert, the band showed an impressive command of live hip-hop, which, perhaps more than rock or any other genre that marries live instrumentation with vocals, needs space and a firm handle on dynamic shifts to work. And rapper Maxx, just 19, offered charisma and style by the truckload.
Give the band and the rapper a dozen or so more shows and you'll be looking at a real force in local music.
Before we move forward, how 'bout a look back? By the numbers, the Showcase thus far: Five weeks. 20 bands. 6,741 words written in preview or review. Zero prizes given away for trivia questions billed as “hard” or “sort of hard.” Ten tickets given away to see either dancing horses or bucking bulls. Five back-up dancers. Ten women. Three separate guest appearances by guitarist Sixstring. One band described by judge 607 as “MILF metal.” One cloth dummy, dubbed Barry Manilow, hung in effigy. 27 guitar solos. And more than 10 hours of live and local music.
Together, of course, that means it's time for the Showcase finals. On Friday at 8 p.m., the five winners of the semi-final rounds will square off at Revolution to determine who will see “Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase winner” precede their name every time they're mentioned for decades. Or until they put me out to pasture. Additionally, the winner will receive a main-stage slot on Riverfest, recording time from Blue Chair Studio, a $50 gift certificate to Jacksonville Guitar Center, 50 T-shirts from Dogwood Printing and a photo shoot with the Times' own Brian Chilson.
Here's a rundown of our five finalists and an argument for each to win:
Velvet Kente, our round one winner, is one of the ever-shifting performance names for local composer .joshua. It's fairly new as a name, but .joshua's been playing around locally for several years, most prolifically in ‘06 and ‘07. Last year, his song “binti” guided Korto Momolu's collection down the runway on the season finale of “Project Runway.
Why they'll win: .joshua's voice quiets rooms. It's big and commanding in the truest sense. The supporting players are all crack musicians, and their music ranges from funk rock to a meditative folk to Afro-beat. There's a novelty to that kind of genre bending in Little Rock.
Nik and Sam won round two by defying expectations. The identical twins from Dover aren't simply a marketing gimmick. They both sing. They both write. They both play their instruments with skill that belies their age.
Why they'll win: They've already been anointed. They're signed to a development deal with Warner Bros. A move to one of the coasts, or at least Nashville, seems imminent. Did I mention they're 16-year-old identical twins?
The See grabbed round three by playing a sturdy, infectious brand of indie rock. With the right touches of dissonance and melody. With a drummer who beats up his kit without being too fussy. With huge vocals and the most hyperactive bassist/keyboardist in Little Rock.
Why they'll win: They're probably the underdogs on paper. They're three young white dudes with beards and mustaches and beat-up jean jackets, indistinguishable among the sea of indie rockers worldwide. And then they start playing …
The Chicklettes mauled the competition in round four on the strength of a wild, theatrical performance by front woman Sophondra Mayhem. The band specializes in classic punk rock, full of style and attitude and lyrics ready-made for chanting along.
Why they'll win: They're hugely compelling to watch. Seeing them play with middle fingers raised high might compel the judges to do the same to their scorecards.
Jonathan Wilkins, of course, took round five. I've told you about him earlier.
Why he'll win: He's got a great band. A smart lyrical sensibility. And the ability to really rawk out in a very traditional, bar-rock kind of way. Sometimes familiar is the ticket.
As you can see, it's a toss-up. Should make for a nice drama.
In past years, the finals have sold out. There aren't advance tickets for sale. Doors, at Revolution (not Sticky Fingerz) open at 7 p.m. and the first band goes on at 8 p.m., so get there early. Tickets are $5 and all ages are welcome. The winner will be announced on Friday. Check the Times' Rock Candy blog for more Showcase preview goodness.
Isaac Alexander (sub judge)
Who? Singer/songwriter, past Showcase winner.
On the fifth round winner: Anybody who can put the words “George Michael” and “Chuck E. Cheese” in a song with a straight face has my attention.
Who? Local music critic.
On the fifth round winner: Spirited, soulful performance. Jonathan's a gifted songwriter and guitarist. Boyd and Floyd help take his songs to the next level.
Who? Last year's winner.
On the fifth round winner: Lots of summertime anthems.
On the fifth round winner: Americana rock ‘n' roll! This is the real deal. Great songwriting. Great musicianship. Who could ask for more?
guest judge march 6
Who? Former A&E editor of the Arkansas Times, Riverfest big wig.
Claim to fame: Chairman of the board of Riverfest in 2007, Showcase runner for years.