It was really, really close, but War Chief edged out Se7en Sharp in Round 3 of the 2012 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase. The evening got off to a smooth, synth-funk start with Wes Patterson, whose six tunes sounded like Kraftwerk and Bootsy Collins collaborating in, say, 1982, or perhaps Suicide if they gave up aggro art-punk in favor of airtight, seamless funk.
Judge Sammy Williams wrote, "Wes killed it on the one-handed keyboard solos. If I ever get married, I am hiring Wes for my reception." Judge Epiphany thought Patterson's songs were "amazing," while Clay Fitzpatrick confessed that had he "had a few more drinks, I would have been on all fours making my butt dance. He is a party starter!"
Next up was Tsar Bomba, a relatively new quartet whose charmingly ramshackle recordings betrayed a forceful live sound. The bass player's rig was absolutely weapons-grade. It was a gut-rattling, innards-jostling, building-shaking sensation that you felt as much or more than you heard. The band's chiming guitars, three-part harmonies and catchy garage pop tunes shone through.
Guest judges Rachel Ammons and Smilin' Bob Lewis — aka, 2011 showcase winners Tyrannosaurus Chicken — noted "good interaction between guitarists." And said, "great vocals, love the bass — very tight. Good, original songs. Those boys plow a groove a mile wide." Judge Cheyenne Matthews wants to "go see Tsar Bomba on a date. A super-sexy date," while Williams summed up the harmonies-with-occasional-screaming vocal style as "Crosby, Stills, Nash and Johnny Rotten."
War Chief had posted on their Facebook page that they'd been rehearsing up through the night before the showcase, and it showed. The band was pro all the way, and the level of musicianship onstage impressed everyone, especially considering that it was the bass player's first live show with the band. The judge described the band as "polished," "tight" and "ridiculously tight."
Epiphany described War Chief as "very polished, 'we should have our own light crew at Riverfest' type of music." Williams summed it up thusly: "Ridiculously tight and extremely professional. Five words — 'Damn this band is good.'" Fitzpatrick was impressed as well. "I think they played better together than any band I have seen in the showcase. It was also the bass player's first show," he wrote. "I never would have guessed." Ammons and Lewis were impressed, but would "like to see them reach outside the box a little more."
As previously noted, this round was incredibly close, with War Chief eking out a win over modern rock five-piece Se7en Sharp. Had there been categories for crowd loyalty and smoke machines, Se7en Sharp would have aced them. Their fans sang along, fist pumped and generally rocked the eff out to the band's classic rock/grunge hybrid.
Williams thought Se7en Sharp was the "most entertaining band I have seen yet. Vocalist [Phil Houston] brought it Scott Weiland-style, vocally and physically." Epiphany's take was to-the-point: "Seamless. 'Nuff said." The T.Chikn crew noted the band's tight playing and excellent showmanship, but thought, "with that much talent, [we] need some originality, too much 'School of Rock.' "
Guest judges Rachel Ammons and Smilin' Bob Lewis: "Tight. Good harmonies. Would like to see them reach outside the box a little more. Nice indie rock. Mature."
Epiphany: "Very polished, 'we should have our own light crew at Riverfest' type of music."
Clay Fitzpatrick: "I think they played better together than any band I have seen in the Showcase. It was also the bass player's first show. I never would have guessed."
Cheyenne Matthews: "Salud! Crisp, way tight stuff."
Sammy Williams: "Ridiculously tight and extremely professional. Five words – 'Damn this band is good.' "
Wooden Toys is a Conway outfit that used to be called Hoop Dreams. The group plays dreamy, reverb-heavy pop that weaves together '90s staples like The Cardigans and Yo La Tengo with more current influences such as Vivian Girls and Real Estate, both of which the group mentioned in a recent "Hendrix Spotlight" video. Vocalist Lira Mondal is a trained singer. Her beautiful voice sounds by turns clear and strong, delicate and coolly unaffected. "In The Shade" recalls some of the sublimely mope-tastic college bands of yore, like The Sundays and Galaxie 500.
Swampbird hails from — where else? — "the swamp," aka Conway. "Hank's Zombie" starts off with what sounds like the ghost of Hasil Adkins screaming lines from "Oh! Susanna," ends with a coda of "I Saw the Light" and in between burns Nashville to the ground. The band sounds like the scariest bunch of backwoods hillfolk you ever met laying down the southern-fried-est boogie punk ever recorded onto an antique four-track. There's a more pro version of the song on the group's recent EP, "It Rolls the Dice," though I dig the demo version the most.
Joey Farr & The Fuggins Wheat Band (say that one aloud in your best Matthew-McConaughey-from-"Dazed and Confused" drawl — get it?) specializes in funky, crunchy, amp-blowing blues rock with a heaping helping of dank-infused jamming. "Pumpkin Pie" is a paean to good-time gals. "Sugar Magnolia" it ain't, but it's probably most effective for getting those hips swaying at, say, George's Majestic Lounge or Chelsea's Corner Cafe in Eureka Springs. But the band can stretch out comfortably into other genres, as well. Exhibit A: the Latin-tinged "Moons Over El Salvador" or the electro-calypso "León Rugiente."
Quadkiller's bio describes the duo as "hip-hop meets electronic metal meets classical hardcore." That sounds about as apt as anything else I could imagine. Ant Thomaz is a rapper from Baton Rouge and Adam Lansky is a producer from South Florida. Noted musical influences include Tchaikovsky, Jay-Z and Nine Inch Nails, a disparate sonic stew epitomized by the ferocious, fractured "The Car Crash." The band's subject matter often addresses topics of poverty, social and economic injustice and critiques of the type of winner-takes-all capitalism that has become commonplace across the nation and the world.