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Hundreds packed into Sticky Fingerz last Friday for the kickoff of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase. We gave away things, spent a lot of time talking about all things equine, danced, shook tambourines, ate delicious chicken fingers and saw four bands give really inspired performances. All the acts — Frown Pow'r, Velvet Kente, Magic Hassle and Jordan Atwater — got serious crowd love. But as much as the love was spread, our judges judged and Velvet Kente came out on top.
I saw a lot of eyes stretch wide when joshua, the driving force of Velvet Kente, opened by singing a capella. The man's got a commanding voice in the most literal sense: Bar chatter stopped. Postures straightened. Hands held beer glasses just short of lips.
With a black hoodie pulled snug around his face, he sang full and clear and with the force of someone used to playing big stages. His voice ranged. Here loud, but laid bare, pleading. There with an Afro-Caribbean inflection. For “binti,” the hypnotic song he lent Korto for “Project Runway,” he adopted a deep, righteous growl. Which seemed about right for lines like, “When you poor you suffer.”
His songs, some fleshed out better than others, mostly delve into social justice and faith. I'm all for frivolity, but it's refreshing to see someone with such a clear talent pushing an agenda geared to provoke.
His band, anchored by longtime local player Tim Anthony on keys, was, as all the judges noted, super tight. It mixed deep, traditional funk rhythms with Afrobeat and syncopated beats. The band's already made the finals a must-do event, and we've still got four slots to fill.
The runners-up were no slouches: Frown Pow'r kicked off the night with a large contingent from Arkadelphia (where a good chunk of the band's from) and from Lyon College in Batesville (where a good chunk of the band schooled). They danced and sang and banged tambourines.
The band got knocked by a couple of judges for being sloppy — playing out of tune and offbeat. That didn't bother me. Some of my favorite bands — Guided by Voices, Black Lips, Hasil Adkins — can't/couldn't play their instruments very well. They made a racket (even using an aluminum door, at one point, for percussion) and relied on lead singer JT Tarpley's charisma to see them through.
Judge 607 wins for best metaphor of the night. He said the band “feels a lot like church, catchy but spastic.” Count me as a convert.
Magic Hassle had the misfortune of following Velvet Kente. Put them on another night, not behind a band that comes out of nowhere and blows everyone away, and they're probably finals bound.
Even though MH has only been together for a couple months, it's still a familiar prospect to any American Princes fan. Just as he does in the Princes, David Slade offers material that, as Nicole Boddington said, is “sensitive, reflective, moving, goose-bump-inducing.” But in other spots, Slade seems to be taking advantage of an opportunity to tap into his inner punk rocker and play really fast and loud and cuss a lot. It's a nice contrast.
Jordan Atwater closed the night with an elaborate stage show: Two lead guitarists, a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, a back-up singer (“the most cheerful man alive,” observed 607) and two dancers. It took a while for the crew to get in place, and by the time their set started, around 12:30 a.m., the crowd had thinned.
They missed an entertaining set, but one that seemed to overwhelm the judges with activity. Still, Jason Weinheimer offered, “More bands should have dancers.”
Here's the lowdown on Thursday's show, which like all semi-final rounds, is at Sticky Fingerz beginning at 9 p.m.:
Loch Ness Monster. Local scene devotees will recognize this four piece as a new incarnation of Nessie, a long-running local post-punk that shredded many an eardrum in their day. The ever-prolific Sulac (Hector Faceplant, Winston Family Orchestra) is the new ingredient. His oddball lyrical sensibility and vocal delivery color “Eleven Traditional Songs,” the band's debut, out last year on Max Recordings, but Nessie's kinetic hard rock remains very much front and center.
Nik and Sam. These 16-year-old identical twins from Dover might be the most established act in the Showcase. The girls (Nik is short for Nikki, Sam for Samantha) specialize in a radio-ready brand of country pop that's landed them a development deal with Warner Bros. They've traveled to Nashville and L.A. to work with writers and producers, and they're hoping to release their debut album this summer. Nik plays guitar and sings lead. Sam plays banjo and dobro and sings harmony and some lead. They'll be supported on Thursday by a full band that includes their dad, Richard Seitan.
Gina Gee. Those who followed last year's Showcase will remember this budding soul diva showing off her estimable pipes with Epiphany and the live hip-hop band One Night Stand. She's still playing with the band, but she's also taking time for herself, readying a solo album, with production help from local heavyweights like Ferocious, G-Sizz and Big Keys, for a likely September release. Come get an early preview.
Whale Fire. This indie-rock quartet from North Little Rock formed last summer, but only settled on its current line-up last September. With three vocalists (including two brothers who aren't twins, but probably get asked if they are) and a penchant for bright guitars, the band's sure to offer a nice, head-bobbing coda to the evening.
Who? Singer/songwriter, producer, jingle writer.
On the first round: Future Showcase bands, be aware: Velvet Kente set a very high standard.
Who? Local music critic.
On the first round: Gritty, passionate, soulful, believable, emotional, powerful. Joshua's voice commands the room. A band I want to see again.
Who? Last year's winner.
On the first round: Wow. Red electricity. Rich with artistry and sincerity. Perfect pace — they never drag and don't waste a second.
On the first round: Love the drummer! Actually the whole band is nice and solid. Great vocals, super smooth grooves. Overall very slick and tight sound, but still organic.
Jim Mize guest judge
Who? Arkansas's finest living songwriter.
Claim to fame: Two stunning albums on Fat Possum; songwriting credits on two Blue Mountain albums.