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John Willis' good cheer, hooks carry him to finals 

Round three coming Thursday.

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It snowed on the day of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase's second round last Thursday — not a lot (that would come later), just enough to put everyone on edge. I'd never been to a Showcase before and didn't bother checking the weather report that morning, so I showed up cold and confused. As the night wore on, I'd get even colder and more confused.

Strange things happened: At one point, a former hair-stylist for GWAR (judge Stacie Mack) offered to give me a haircut, and later a man I'd never met unaccountably gave me a bear hug and told me he was "a good guy who gives a lot of money to charity." There were accordions, electric violins, spike-studded bracelets, and frequent random bursts of high-pitched feedback from an embattled sound system. A whole table next to me was outfitted entirely in camouflage, but when I tried pointing it out to someone later on in the night, they'd vanished.

The show started off with what Fox Blossom Venture's banjo-toting frontman Aaron Farris called a "hillbilly christening service," which sounds about right. Their fiddle-player, Aaron Walton, wore all black, had memorable sideburns, and was one of the highlights of the night. Judge Stephen Neeper's comments on their set read, in total, "LET THAT BOY SAW THAT FIDDLE!!" "We're not nearly as bad as we look," Farris said after a gospel cover, and the audience clearly agreed.

Benton, Arkansas, turned out in full force for their hometown band Dead End Drive, which definitely won my own imaginary award for Most Enthusiastic Soundcheck. Their drummer couldn't wait until the end of their songs to take swigs from his beer, and their guitarist, who you should know is named Rayzr Skinner, played a vicious-looking 7-string Flying V like it was a weapon. He stalked the stage with expressive long hair and hate in his heart. More than anyone else, these guys embraced the feedback and made it their own.

Bombay Harambee closed out the night with what Mack called "spastic energy" (she also noted that the lead singer "looks like a smaller version of the guy from 'Superbad'!"). Judge Bryan Frazier commended them for "surprising & tasty twists," while Neeper claimed they had the "best sounding drums of the night." Fresh off the release of their new EP "You Know Better," their set was quick, clean, and vindictive.

The night's winner, by unanimous decision, was Little Rock's own John Willis, who filled out his sound with a band that included Sarah Stricklin, Sydney Hunsicker, Jack Lloyd, and Mike Motley. Frazier said Willis "creates his own genre," and called their set "blissful and playful yet musically intricate and catchy." Neeper wrote that he loves "to see people smile when they perform," and it's true: Willis is one contagiously cheerful guy.

The audience must have noticed this too. In addition to the elite and all-knowing panel of judges, we have a crowd-voting component this year, and Willis won that contest, too. He'll move on the final round with last week's winner, Peckerwolf.

The Round 3 lineup:

Chris Alan Craig Band

Not to be confused with Conway native and "American Idol" Season 8 winner Kris Allen, Little Rock's Chris Alan Craig sings barroom country ballads with a voice that wavers between masculine reserve and unleashed sentimentality. He sounds like a guy who, as he sings on "Pack Your Bags," has "been drinking and smoking now for 14 days." His group, modestly dubbed the Chris Alan Craig Band, has a new EP called "Gonna Be Rich," but the songs here seem to insist on the opposite: These are sad tributes to giving up, leaving town and settling down, loaded with tender, boozy Nashville emotionalism.

Flight Machine

Fayetteville's Flight Machine claims to have been "born in a secret military camp on Baekdu Mountain in Japanese-occupied Korea on 16 February 1942." I looked into this — maybe I was a little skeptical — and was redirected to Kim Jong-il's Wikipedia page. I don't know that this tells you that much about these guys, who play jangly, downtrodden indie rock, but it does hint we can't entirely trust them. Is their lead singer's middle name really Danger? Is their bass player actually a doctor? These are possibly unanswerable questions; your best bet is to come by the showcase and find out.

Mad Nomad

There's something weirdly nostalgic about Mad Nomad's brand of thick-riffed punk rock. They've mastered the art of tuneful and deceptively simple distortion, and wield it heavily and distinctively on wistful, homesick anthems about loneliness and missed opportunities. There are shades of Sunny Day Real Estate and Cap'n Jazz on songs like "The Crowd," which finds frontman Joe Holland singing and screaming through a smoker's cough while the rhythm section piles on. Garage rock doesn't get any more anti-social. As Holland sings on the chorus, "They don't know my name, they don't know my face, and I like it that way." Their debut album is called "Black Out" and you can find it for free at Soundcloud.

Flameing Daeth Fearies

During a sound check for round 2, a very nice and eager person calling herself the Flameing Daeth Fearies' "manager and lighting technician" approached our table, asked me if I had a "dog in the fight" for Round 3, and handed everyone at my table each a small, glossy card featuring a neon-lit heart encircling the letters F.D.F. On the back are the band's full logo and the tagline, "The Gaudiest Show on Earth." I don't have a dog in the fight, exactly, but I appreciated the gesture, and having now seen their music videos I understand their pride in gaudiness. They are obsessed with bad taste — it leaps out at you from just about every aspect of their low-brow scuzz-rock. Champions of odd wigs and Viking helmets and brightly colored cartoonish T-shirts, they share an aesthetic as eccentric as their spelling.

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