"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
It's more or less a given that the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase semifinals will have eclectic lineups. You'll hear rockabilly bumping up next to rap in one round and singer/songwriter pop mingling with bawdy punk rock the next. That mix is one of the reasons people enjoy the showcase. It's good, too, for the bands and their fans to get out of their comfort zones and check out something that might not be exactly what they're used to. But this year's opening round just might boast the most wide-ranging collection of performers yet.
While The Holy Shakes won decisively — the Hot Springs quartet topped every judge's list — each performer went over really well with the crowd, and overall, the evening had a really good, positive vibe.
Shining Rae, the stage name for Shannin Watkins, was the first performer. Her set was split pretty evenly between slightly melancholy singer/songwriter tunes built around acoustic guitars and pop/R&B ear candy of the sweetest sort. "Sugar" and "Dreamin' " fell into that second category, and both were big hits with the judges and the crowd. If she keeps performing and writing songs that are as catchy as the ones she played last week, Watkins could go on to big things in the pop world.
The Holy Shakes took to the stage next, and if I was forced to describe the set in one word it'd be this: bruising. Bill Solleder, the band's imposing, sunglasses-at-night-wearing frontman, commanded the attention of everyone in the room, while guitarist Bobby Missile strangled his six-string and the rhythm section of Brian Lee and Justin Castleberry pounded out a muscular backing beat that drove the whole thing over the audience like a monster truck over an '87 Yugo.
The Coasts came up next, and although I was under the impression that it was a low-key, poppy duo, the band quickly disabused me of that notion. Now a five-piece, The Coasts turned those catchy, bedroom Beatles tunes I'd been listening to into raucous power-pop anthems. Things turned into a bit of a dance party during their set, and in terms of onstage energy, The Coasts definitely matched The Holy Shakes — no easy task.
Fayetteville death metal stalwarts Vore wrapped things up with several songs from their recent album "Gravehammer." The dance party from a half-hour earlier gave way to a mosh pit of Vore fans, replete with banging heads and lots of fists raising the horns. For being a three-piece, Vore's live sound is overwhelming and true to the studio recordings of the songs. Before the band's final number, bassist Jeremy Partin summed up the good vibes of the evening by thanking the other performers and noting that no matter the style of music, we're all just singing about the human condition.
The judges' take on Round 1 winner The Holy Shakes:
Mary Chamberlin: "True punks. Flippant disregard for 'coolness.' Studied, but unique ... My record collection called, it wants The Holy Shakes."
Epiphany: "I knew the frontman had to come out that leather jacket sooner or later because he was putting in work."
Clay Fitzpatrick: "These guys played so well together ... drummer strong, bass constant, guitar was driving and singer was crazy in a good way."
Cheyenne Matthews: "More like holy shit! Holy Shit!!!"
Sammy Williams: "Frontman and drummer have great energy. They have updated the '70s garage/punk sound beyond a mere rehash."
Round 2: 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, at Stickyz
The Hidden Rex: This three-piece reminds me of some of the great SST Records trios of the '80s, sometimes even within the same song. "Seethe" simultaneously recalls the slightly off-key charm and weirdness of the Meat Puppets circa "II." The group's geeky, cheeky covers of mainstream hits (Cher, Nelly, Danzig) echo The Minutemen's irreverent homage. Of course, it'll be all original songs from The Hidden Rex come Thursday.
Lindsay Kate Band: Lindsay Kate has "been singing ever since she could talk," according to the band's bio. "Their stage presence proves that they love a good time and want everyone joining them in their fantastical endeavors to have an even better time," the bio states. "Hopefully, you can be a part of the magic soon." The pop country six-piece competed in the 2011 Texaco Country Showdown at the Arkansas State Fair.
Don't Stop Please: This Conway six-piece traffics in jazzy, folk-flavored ditties with a plethora of eclectic and often acoustic instrumentation: banjos, guitars, upright bass, cello, ukulele, shakers, bongos, tambourines, washboards and whatnot. The overall sound is not dissimilar from The Avett Brothers, but DSP's got its own thing going on. The band has played incessantly around Central Arkansas over the last year.
Holy Angell: A relatively new four-piece made up of folks from several other notable heavy acts, including Deadbird, Tem Eyos Ki and Ridin' Dudes, Holy Angell's sound drinks much more deeply from the dank, evil well of black metal while still managing to swing like the great southern sludge metal bands and even incorporate a bit of nasty D-beat tempos. Philip Schaaf's vocals are all pure, horrifying black metal anguish, though.
Note: J.D. Parker & The Tin Strings were originally scheduled for this round, but had to cancel due to unforeseen circumstances.