We're halfway through the semi-final rounds of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase and steadily picking up steam. Once again, the second round played out before a full, lively house at Sticky Fingerz. Our guest judge Belvis the Black Elvis didn't serenade the crowd, but he posed for a lot of cell phone cameras, hit on a lot of ladies (best pick-up line overheard: “Girl, you look like the fine Delta Burke”) and afforded me the chance to say “Belvis is in the building” a lot. Here's a rundown of the night of music:
Notion, from Little Rock, kicked off the night impressively. As Colter McCorkindale promised in his review of the band's debut album in the Times, Shaun Hartman has serious lead vocal chops. Their set had nice stylistic variety — balladry, modern rockers, handclap pop-rock — and their rhythm section moved things along nicely. Said Razormack, the “bass player put the motion in the Notion.” If the band stays together for a little while and makes the right contacts, Notion seems poised to blow up beyond Little Rock.
The Reds followed with a fantastic set of punchy, post-punk. Johnny Mac writes really smart, catchy songs. And it was so nice to see a band that knows the importance of space in music, that less is often more. Mac's bass (often capoed) got front billing, which was awesome, with Graham Cobb's guitar used mostly to accent. Judge Davis Clement commented, “Johnny Mac has expertly crafted a signature sound, and it's the catchiest thing in the Max Recordings catalog.” Catch the Reds again at Vino's on Feb. 28.
Bryan Frazier with Action Figures held the third slot down. The last time I saw Frazier, he was doing his dreamy pop solo. Last night, he had a crack band backing him, which lent his material an extra bite. The judges dug it. The band came in second last night. Maybe this can become a steady thing?
For the second week in a row, the last act of the night won its round and once again, hip-hop prevailed. Epiphany and One Night Stand's brand of live hip-hop has been a fresh change of pace locally since rapper Epiphany recruited the musicians last year. But it's not just the novelty of it now: The group really seems to be jelling into a dynamic act. Epiphany writes smart, self-reflective lyrics and has a cool, tall man's deep voice. All of One Night Stand's players can do amped up jazz/soul right. And Gina Gee! Best R&B vocalist in town. She was ill (literally) Thursday night, too, but still managed to belt out the hook to “5 Dollas,” the insanely catchy song that probably won it for 'em.
It was a near unanimous decision by the judges, who graded the semi-finalists on song quality, originality, musicianship, showmanship and crowd response, with a higher percentage of the score focused on song quality and originality.
As usual we'll have T-shirts and CDs to give away, plus special Valentine's Day chocolates and treats. Here's who is on tap at Sticky Fingerz this week:
Rockst*r. A descendent of Alex Haley (“Roots”), the local MC/producer has made waves since coming to Little Rock three years ago. Almost since he got to town, he's been promoting his debut album, “Instant Classic,” teasing fans with mixtapes, videos and singles, recently debuting a track produced by industry heavyweight David Banner. Look for a show at Vino's on Feb. 29 to promote his burgeoning T-shirt and hoodie brand FRESH Goods.
Brian Martin. The Hot Springs-based Americana artist launched his full-time career as a musician in 2004 and has since become a finalist at the Emerging Artist Competition at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival and last year won a Lower Arkansas Music Award for most unique performer of the year. He'll be backed by the Circulators, featuring Kenny Tillery on bass and guitar, Aaron Butler on drums and percussion and Greg Batterton on harmonica and trumpet. You can catch him regularly at Maxine's in Hot Springs and on March 28 at Cornerstone Pub.
Benjamin Del Shreve. In the early part of the decade, the Hatfield native sang lead in GS Megaphone, a popular Christian hard rock act. After the band dissolved, Del Shreve started writing songs in transit — Key West, France, New York City — for what became his album “Brilliant and Charming.” Now based in Fayetteville and supported by a four-piece backing band, the singer/songwriter is a fixture on Northwest Arkansas stages. You can catch him again on Saturday at Maxine's in Hot Springs.
Ace Spade and the Whores of Babylon. Veterans of several of Little Rock's strongest punk acts, husband-and-wife Ace Spade (guitar, vocals) and Sofira N. Brimstone (drums) anchor the punkabilly band, with relatively new member Mr. Del Lilah on bass. Expect a fair amount of theatricality and songs celebrating Ed Wood and B-movie horror queens. Catch Ace Spade's excellent radio show every week on Thursday at midnight (likely a little later tonight) on KABF 88.3 FM and see the band on March 14 at Downtown Music.
UPCOMING SHOWCASE SCHEDULE
Feb. 21: 4X4 Crew, Damn Bullets, Kyoto Boom and Natural State
Who? Singer/songwriter with the Boondogs
On the second round: “5 Dollas” sealed the deal ... a fantastic pop hook that gets stuck in your head. Epiphany and Gina Gee have great onstage chemistry, both sharing the limelight without stepping on each others toes.
Who? Local hip-hop impresario
On the second round: [E&ONS are] not your normal hip-hop act. The accompaniment was impressive.
Who? Booking agent for Porter-Jones Entertainment
On the second round: It was a really tough choice between the Reds and Piph and One Night Stand, but in the end, E&ONS played a really tight set and had a dynamic sound.
Who? Editor of localistmagazine.com
On the second round: Refreshing soulful hip-hop backed by a full rock band is rare. Piph's family-style jam is one of a kind.
Will Boyd guest judge
Who? Local musician.
Claim to fame: Former guitarist with Evanescence and recent Grammy nominee, Boyd currently plays in the American Princes and produces and engineers for local acts.