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Showcase goes into ‘Orbit’ 

COOPER'S ORBIT: The winners.
  • COOPER'S ORBIT: The winners.

The musicians and their followers may not be able to stand the wait, but I like the way we announce the winner of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase. The system was started last year, though it had been a few previous hot-and-bothered finals nights in the making.

Now, all the semifinalists converge for a great show — last Friday, it was in the wonderful and spacious Revolution Music Room, where more than 700 people (a record and then some) were on hand for at least part of the show — everybody goes home happy, and then we reconvene a few days later at Sticky Fingerz for the announcement of the winner. By then the musicians and fans have had a chance to digest just what happened during Friday’s finals, and everybody can pretty well point to one band that absolutely brought its “A” game and separated itself from the rest.

This year, that band was Cooper’s Orbit.

Playing second among the five semifinalists, Chris Henry and his three bandmates were tight from the first note. Some of the acoustic-driven songs that Henry used to reach the finals last year (finishing a mere one point behind the winner, Hannah Blaylock and Eden’s Edge) have been significantly filled out by drums, bass and keyboards. Henry and the band, however, didn’t rely simply on the old material; Henry also penned an untitled song for the finals that Dave Matthews would be proud to call his own.

It is fitting that Cooper’s Orbit has a opening gig later this month for Tim Reynolds at the Revolution Room — Reynolds being one of Dave Matthews’ close musician friends as well as being one of the great acoustic-electric guitarists. Little Rock’s Chris Henry is in that mold.

It’s his third time in the finals, and second with two of these band members. Bassist Matt Nestrud and drummer Will Jennings joined Henry as the trio American Standard in 2002. Man, how far all these guys have come since they were high school kids. Henry brought aboard Brian Holtsford as keyboardist for Cooper’s Orbit.

An interesting aside: Cooper’s Orbit’s regular bass player before the Showcase was Roland Gladden. But, for Cooper’s Orbit to enter the contest, Gladden had to step away, as he is an employee of the Arkansas Times (and a wonderful videographer who has recorded night after night of the Showcase; much of the footage can be seen at www.arktimes.com and on youtube.com).

In winning, Cooper’s Orbit earned a slot in Riverfest, $300 in music equipment from Jacksonville Guitar, dinner from Trio’s restaurant, recording time from Blue Chair Studio in Cabot, a photo shoot with the Times’ Brian Chilson, and four cases of Red Bull, which should keep the guys awake awhile. All the finalists received long-sleeve T-shirts from HipSwayUSA.com, and all were paid for reaching the finals.

Our seven judges included Jody Evans, a finalist a couple of years back on “Nashville Star,” and Riverfest’s DeAnna Shannon. As for the scoring, it wasn’t a runaway. Right there at the end, just a judge’s point or two away here and there, were Jeff Coleman and the Feeders, Damn Bullets, the Dean Agus Band and Highway 5.

Dean Agus and his Hot Springs group gave a professionally polished show, and if there was a second “A-game” performance, it would have to have been theirs. Coleman’s group, too, rocked through a powerful, never-slowing 30-minute fun set. Monitor sound difficulties slowed Damn Bullets somewhat, and their set, though good, didn’t match the knock-’em-dead effort of Night 1 of the Showcase back in January. Young and definitely-to-be-heard-from Highway 5 seemed a little unnerved for the first couple of songs before getting into their country groove. They only have to look at Chris Henry and Cooper’s Orbit to see what a difference a few years makes on stage.

The Showcase bands’ performances often have seemed similar to sports matchups — some nights one team can’t miss. Last Friday, Cooper’s Orbit was the one on fire and not to be denied.

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