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Hot Springs' Ghost Bones took the second round of the 2015 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase last Thursday, edging out Pizza D regulars Big Still River. The Bones' resurrected late-'70s sound captivated the judges and impressed the crowd enough to get them to obey the command hanging above the stage and "DANCE!"
Big Still River opened the night with a rock-solid set of eclectic variations on traditional bluegrass themes. The vibe was fun, relaxed and casual, like an afternoon fish fry, and the band made everyone feel like we were part of a family reunion. Judge Derek Brooks noted, "They made their set feel more intimate, and made Stickyz feel smaller." "Brings me back to a time when music was honest, unfiltered and true," Judge Joe Holland said.
The 'River handily won the vote of the crowd: They had a large group of supporters in front cheering for them. The standout for me was "Don't Shut Me Out" with its strong vocal delivery and raw emotion. A few judges noted that some of the group's songs weren't originals, but they were impressed nevertheless with the chops of the bass player, who could bow as well as pluck. "Double points for the man-bass," as guest judge Maxwell George wrote.
Next up was The Federalis, who came into Stickyz presumably after having hunted down Pancho and Lefty to provide 30 minutes of what judge Shayne Gray called "swamp/outlaw alternative rock; Kings of Leon meets the Arkansas Fouke monster." The lead singer had an air of swaggering self-awareness, noting that "all our songs are about whiskey or women." My favorite part of the set was at the end when the drummer and lead guitarist switched instruments, and the drummer launched into an eruptive behind-the-back guitar solo. Judges all agreed that they wanted to see more guitar chops from the drummer.
Ghost Bones' victorious set came third, winning over a dwindling crowd with a remarkably tight and dynamic set with no filler. The band brought energized interpretations of late '70s post-punk/art school rock with maximum style. From the button-down shirts, steady but tireless disco-like pulses of the rhythm section and entertainingly unhinged facial expressions of the guitarist, which matched his erratic and innovative playing, to the icy seductiveness of the lead singer, with her detached but intense performance, this band had the full package.
Judge Mitchell Crisp encapsulated the sound better than I ever could: "The rush of youth and boredom and kicking and making out against a chain link fence and being on the verge of trouble but too ecstatic to care."
Closing out the night was Little Rock's Black Horse, who despite playing last was filled with explosive gusto. "Loud, tight, fast ... alright!" George said. Black Horse played short, tight punk songs with distinct melodies and pedal-to-the-medal pace driven by drummer Daniel Olah, who you might recognize from any number of other bands around town. "Finally someone is beating the shit out of the drums!" Holland noted. "He's attacking the drum set without mercy!" Brooks said. At one point Olah lost a drumstick and began furiously playing with his bare hand. I thought the three-piece garage rockers were compelling and I dug many of the songs but felt that they maybe would have benefited from a less hasty sound check (one of the drawbacks of playing last, for sure).
Here's the lineup for Round 3, which will be at Stickyz starting at 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12:
Young Gods of America
A talented (and prolific) young collective of hip-hop artists whose online tracks (ygoa.tumblr.com) have impressed the Times' Will Stephenson, who noted that the group represents "the long overdue emergence of Little Rock hip-hop's next generation."
A Fayetteville-based group that describes its sound as "psychedelic country pop" and "cosmic comfort rock." The group sounds unrelentingly fun, and maybe a little insane, which I'd like to see more of in the showcase. I'm not sure what "post-nap sarcasm" means, but I can't wait to find out.
Another gem from Hot Springs' indie rock scene, these newcomers are mostly a mystery to me. Their 2014 album is full of varied styles, with nice portions of alt-country-tinged rockers, ethereal ballads and driving anthems.
Hailing from Conway and grounded by propulsive drumming and jazzy Jaco-like bass stylings, this instrumental prog-rock group is sure to impress with excellent musicianship and interesting dynamics.