How to describe Conway's Don't Stop Please, the winner of round two of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase? "Cosmic folk" occurred to us early on in the band's winning set, when the six-piece did a shuffling Southern ditty built on two guitars, a stand-up bass, keys, a saxophone and drums that occasionally drifted off into weird directions. But then just about everyone switched instruments and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Anna Horton sang a smoky, Latin-tinged lounge number. While playing a ukulele. Later, after everyone had switched instruments a couple times, and we'd seen a trombone, banjo and harmonica make appearances, DSP did the whitest proto-rap funk song perhaps ever performed. The hook was "My booty is so luxurious." And at one point, Horton asked, "Where my lazy sluts at?"
Sure, it was unfocused. But perhaps not surprisingly for a group called Don't Stop Please, the band isn't used to playing 30-minute sets, singer/guitarist Joel Ludford told me after the set. So maybe they felt like they needed to move across the wide spectrum of their abilities quickly. It certainly showcased their crisp musicianship and charisma. And it worked with the judges.
As is customary, the other acts were no slouches either. Pop-rock trio The Hidden Rex opened the night. A more amiable band would be hard to find. Likewise a more self-deprecating one. "Mindblowingly mediocre!" singer/guitarist Derek Damron quipped after a song mid-set as a suggestion for something for the judges to write down. Most did, but they also said things like, "Charmingly self-deprecating, nerdy pop at its finest" (guest judge Isaac Alexander) and "They sound like a 7-inch from 1991" (Sammy Williams). We thought Hidden Rex sounded like Jonathan Richman as backed by the Meat Puppets and that it got better as its set progressed. The group's last song, "My Best Friend's Sister," was a pop gem. Several of the judges singled it out.
Holy Angell represented several firsts for the Showcase as best as we can figure. It was the first time we've had anything that could be described as a black metal band. And it's the first time when a vocalist exclusively screamed. And it was awesome. And a good number of folks stuck around past midnight to see it. They got to see lead screamer Philip Schaaf contort himself theatrically as he seemed to be pushing out the soul yawps from down deep. Judge Epiphany wondered if Schaaf practices his screams, which he thought were in key. And Williams offered the ultimate black metal endorsement, "I have no clue how those screams came from a human."
Country pop upstarts The Lindsey Kate Band were a no-show. "They were pretty tough to see and hear," said Williams.
Sammy Williams: Cover multiple genres, all extremely well.
Cheyenne Matthews: "Where my lazy sluts at?!" Well, it's cool they aren't biased."
Clay Fitzpartick: "Great hair! They are extremely confident. Talented kids."
Epiphany: "Screaming in time, head banging on a stand-up bass, pinwheels, plus a megaphone. Good times."
Isaac Alexander: "Genuinely surprised by this band. Great musicianship. And fun to watch and listen to. Each song was a new thought/movement. Looked like a lot of fun. I'd like to be in this band for a while."
Wes Patterson's website advertises funk and smooth jazz tunes with "No filler or B-sides!" and that is exactly what he delivers. The Cincinnati native retired from the Air Force in 2003 and started Willora Records, which has released several CDs of instrumentals and incredibly tight synth-funk that is all smooth – no rough edges at all. Imagine early '80s-era Bootsy Collins or The Gap Band filtered through the effortlessly sleek, airtight sound of Kraftwerk and you'll get pretty close to Patterson's "Stop Wishin' Start Doin.' "
Tsar Bomba might be named after the Soviet Union's most devastating hydrogen bomb, but the band's vibe is closer to a string of ladyfingers tossed into the back of a mall cop's patrol cart than thermonuclear annihilation. Tsar Bomba channels the jingle jangle spirit of San Francisco circa now. Think The Mantles, Thee Oh Sees, The Fresh and Onlys and the like. With their falsettos and clean guitar tones, some of the band's songs remind me of "Turtle Soup," the excellent, Ray Davies-produced final Turtles album from 1969.
War Chief's soaring, roots-inspired anthems recently won the band a spot playing this year's Wakarusa Camping and Music Festival. Listening to the group's recent EP, it's easy to hear why. War Chief has as broad an appeal as any other rock act in Central Arkansas. Classic rock diehards will dig the Allman-esque guitar heroics on "Welcome to the Real World," while the rollicking "Stand Watie" could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with The Drive-By Truckers at their most solemnly intense.
Se7en Sharp takes the classic crunch of ZZ Top, the riff efficiency of AC/DC and post-grunge influences and weds all of it to decidedly Southern rock swagger, creating a hybrid that is epitomized on "Get in Line," from the band's recent EP. But Se7en Sharp knows how to slow it down too, on the power ballad "Kami" and the earnest, country-tinged number "Give Me a Chance." I'm not sure what's playing on The Edge right this second, but I'm pretty confident that Se7en Sharp is as good as or better than whatever that is.