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It's that time of the year again. After months of hype and weeks of whittling down, we're ready to begin the local battle of the bands to end all battle of the bands — the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase. For 21 years running, the showcase has served as a launch party for some of Arkansas's finest. Past winners include the likes of Ho Hum, Runaway Planet, The Salty Dogs, Eden's Edge, 607, Velvet Kente and Tyrannosaurus Chicken.
As usual, this year's contest pits 20 semifinalists against each other over the course of five Thursdays at Stickyz. The winners from each semifinal round will square off in the finals on Friday, March 7 at Revolution.
At stake (besides bragging rights) includes a cash prize; spots playing at Riverfest, Valley of the Vapors and Arkansas Sounds; recording time at Blue Chair Studio; a gift certificate at Jacksonville Guitar; a T-shirt package from Section 8; a drink named after the winner at Stickyz and Revolution; a congratulatory party at Stickyz and a photo shoot with Times photographer Brian Chilson.
We'll also be doing audience giveaways, including for passes to Wakarusa and more.
Personalities from KKPT, The Point 94.1 FM, will be on hand to host.
New this year, everyone who comes through the door will receive a ticket that they can deposit in a box with their favorite band's name on it. The crowd vote will be weighted to count the same as one judge's.
The fun gets started 9 p.m. Thursday at Stickyz. It's an all-ages affair, $5 for 21 an older and $10 for 20 and younger.
Here are your first-round semifinalists:
The Fable and The Fury
Searcy's The Fable and The Fury call their style "folk 'n' roll," but pressed in an interview with KLRT-TV, Fox 16, front man Jake Reeves elaborated, "We're a rock band, but we can strip down ... and play acoustic, too." That often means you'll see three acoustic guitars strumming at once, but sometimes there'll be a banjo or mandolin in the mix, too. Look for grand harmonies and lyrics of both existential poetry ("For the world/is reduced to just an object/floating somewhere deep inside us/betwixt our double crown and calloused toe") and historical odes ("Next to Traveler on thy knee/Mister Lee of Virginee/Not a soul enslaved by thee").
"I only say strange words when I try to talk," claims Basement Brew on their song "Sweet Release," and having heard their debut EP, "Pimp Safari," we wouldn't disagree. But then even their band name evokes something illicit, homemade, dank. A five-member folk-rock band from Fayetteville, these guys are surely the most laid-back outfit on the night's bill, with all the good vibes and hippy, swamp-rock bass lines of a jam band but at a much more manageable and enjoyable length. They call themselves "mild-mannered" and their sound "canoe rock," and if that isn't endearing we don't know what is.
Peckerwolf played last year's Showcase, so this time it's serious. If you missed them last time around, just know that these guys are anything but mild-mannered. Little Rock fixtures since they formed in 2012, the group has an energy that is brash, bearded and powerful, and they do biker-rock bluster as well as anybody this side of Motorhead. Even their love songs are angry. As one of last year's judges wrote: "Beer drankin' music, as in, I seriously didn't order a beer until these guys came on. Some thunderous shit."
People's Republic of Casio Tones
The youngest band in the first round, People's Republic of Casio Tones features no actual Casio tones, as far as we can tell, but you won't miss them for the group's wailing, moody grunge rock. They write what they know: songs about guitar shops, burritos and "Star Trek." Also, the suburbs (they're based in Sherwood). They've also made flyers for the Showcase's first round featuring portraits of dour, well-dressed cats, along with a reminder to "Vote for Casio." They advise all concertgoers to "wear your best scarf."
John Miller If you've attended weddings or made the club rounds in Arkansas anytime in the last decade, chances are you know him as Big John Miller, perhaps Arkansas's greatest blue-eyed soul man. Those who've played or attended the Central Arkansas Library's 2-year-old Arkansas Sounds Music Festival know him as the festival organizer.
Stephen Neeper He's front man of Stephen Neeper & The Wild Hearts, Little Rock's favorite blues-infused Southern rawk outfits. The Times' Robert Bell called him "a shred-meister extraordinaire."
Bryan Frazier As assistant program director at KABF, he's overseen the development of some of the strongest programming the station has seen in years. As a pop musician, he's been a steady presence around town for almost a decade, releasing dreamy, hooky material with regularity.
Stacie Mack She's a local hairstylist and makeup artist who's worked with everyone from GWAR to Saliva. She also wrote a longtime column about the Central Arkansas music scene for The Little Rock Free Press.
Bill Solleder The front man for erstwhile rock acts The Blue Meanies and The Holy Shakes (the winner of the 2012 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase) is also arguably the driving force in Hot Springs independent arts and culture as the co-founder of Low Key Arts, The Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival and the Hot Water Hills Music & Arts Festival.