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I'm a curmudgeon, who, after years of seeing shows constantly, pretty much quit four years ago. Like everyone who's retired from the scene, I have to fight thinking that everything was better back in the day. So it was with more than a little dread that I approached covering the opening night of the 2014 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase (Will Stephenson, our newly hired Arts and Entertainment editor who penned the preview of this week's round, will begin shepherding coverage on Thursday).
As you can probably predict, I'm a dummy. All's well in Arkansas live music if the four bands that opened the Showcase are any indication. All played a variety of rock 'n' roll. All had at least one member with a beard. And all were engaging.
Opener The Fable and the Fury, from Searcy, did a brand of what judge Bryan Frazier called "indie mountaintop." In other words, mildly raucous riffage, martial drums and lots of harmonies. Just Stephen Neeper appreciated the spare use of a trombone. "Nice use of the horn," he said. "Not overplayed."
Several judges likened Fayetteville's Basement Brew to Ben Folds Five, but to my ears, they sounded more rambunctious, Southern version of Real Estate. Or like The Feelies covering The Band. "There's some magic here," guest judge Bill Solleder said of the self-described canoe rockers.
There were no Casio tones in The People's Republic of Casio Tones' set; just goofball lyrics ("Party in My Pants") set to tasty slabs of Southern grunge-pop. "This is the People's Republic of I dig the fuck out of these guys!" judge Neeper said. The bassist, in particular, drew praise from judges Stacie Mack ("The bass player has moves like Jagger") and John Miller ("I love the bass player's stage presence and 'funk face' ").
But in the end, the night belonged to hard-rock bruisers Peckerwolf, who were near unanimous winners with our judges. Queens of the Stone Age was a touchstone several judges mentioned, but Bryan Frazier said the Peckerwolf musicians didn't immediately remind him of anyone else, "but sound familiar." Neeper loved the "guitar riffs." As did Miller: "The right mix of riffs, beards and asscracks." Mack didn't like the band's name, but loved their energy and said lead singer and guitarist Ryker James Horn was "who Jack Black wants to be when he grows up." LM
Next up, performing at 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6 at Stickyz:
The Fox Blossom Venture call Batesville home, though they're from all sorts of places — not only Arkansas (singer Aaron Farris and guitarist Jacob Lackey), but Maine (singer Emily Byrne), Texas (violinist Aaron Walton), Tennessee (bassist James Spahr), and Athens, Ga. (drummer Ethan Lindblom). It was in Batesville, though, that they first started playing together at a weekly chapel service at Lyon College, making good-natured country-folk with a barn-dance stomp and interludes for banjo, harmonica, and tasteful male-female vocal duets. Since leaving the church (literally, if not figuratively), they've toured the state and put a record together, "Autumn Leaves."
Little Rock's John Willis dresses impeccably and makes baroque pop with lush, lounge-y harmonies and arrangements. He lists George Gershwin and Stevie Wonder as primary influences, though the result sounds more in line with someone like Randy Newman (or, OK, let's say Ben Folds): upbeat piano rock from a persona that is literate, coy, and casually self-deprecating. "I guess I'm an acquired taste," he sings, though on a song called "King of the Cocktail Party" (also his album's title). On songs like "The Ladder," he lures you in with easygoing, Tin Pan Alley moves and shocks with a vulnerable and a physically impressive falsetto.
Then things take a turn for the dark and tempestuous with alt-rock group Dead End Drive, the members of which have excellent movie-villain names like Rayzr Skinner and Rex Furry. Here you'll find downcast, Drop D riffs and post-grunge vocal rasp, shot through with anger and lines like "Tonight I'm gonna lose my mind." It's true, this is music to lose your mind to, or do awesome BMX tricks to — one or the other, or both. There's a video online of the group playing live on Fox 16's "Good Day Arkansas" last November. "We pretty much grew up together," they tell the host, and they look dazed, obviously nervous to be on TV. The host asks, "What drives you?" and front man Steven Zimmerebner shrugs and says, "I don't show emotion well." The host just lets that one go.
Last on the bill is the best-named group of the night, Bombay Harambee, four Arkansas natives who met in college in Conway and have translated some of that city's bleak, forbidding desolation (I know it well) into austere and articulate post-punk in the vein of bands like Wire or Mission of Burma. Adherents of the sharp, one-note guitar solo and the well-timed, darkly ironic utterance (e.g. "I love you so much that I don't even know your address"), these guys will close out the night on a cold and raucous note. WS.