Round 2 of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase got under way a bit later than usual, and with only three bands instead of the usual four. Members of Fayetteville's Tom & Hebron, scheduled to play that evening, had come down with the flu. Even with three bands, the competition was tight, and the scores were closer all around than they were for Round 1.
That said, the Stephen Neeper Band put on a ragin' show, advancing to the March 1 finals. More on them shortly.
The evening's opening slot went to Little Rock quartet The Bad Years, who just might be the youngest band in Showcase history — three of the members are still in high school. But you wouldn't guess that to hear them play, such is their knack for crafting hook-y pop-punk that pretty much completely ignores the Fallout Boy/Blink 182 years in favor of the Lookout!/Very Small Records canon: early Green Day, Fifteen, Jawbreaker, Screeching Weasel, Pinhead Gunpowder. You know, the good stuff. Highlight: a super punchy version of their single "Nowhere in Sight."
Showcase judge Grayson Shelton wrote: "Don't let their age fool you... I know a bunch of bands who'd get their asses smoked by these dudes!"
Guest judge Rodney Block noted the group's "great musical energy" and commitment to their sound, while judge Mandy McBryde wrote that "these guys make me wanna fight for something I believe in and dance around a lot." Judge CT wrote, "Drummer is a basher!!! Sounds like Green Day, but early good stuff — the deep-album gems off the first Green Day album."
Up next was the aforementioned Stephen Neeper Band. It's hard to convey the extent to which this band has swaggering, blues-steeped Southern rock down cold. And frontman Neeper is a shred-meister extraordinaire. Seriously, dude can waaaaail on that guit-box. And when you account for the fact that the rest of the band members are stone-cold bad-asses too? Well, that right there is a recipe for a face-melting rock experience.
Closing out the night was Little Rock five-piece Flint Eastwood. It's fair to say this band's indie rock/hip-hop hybrid is the most musically eclectic offering in the Showcase.
The young band made a big impression on the judges, especially Mandy McBryde, who wrote, "This sound is so new. I love this band and want to hear so much more of them."
Grayson Shelton heard similarities with Fayetteville jam/funk ensemble Cadillac Jackson and live hip-hop outfit Hardaway & The Commoners, also of Fayetteville. He noted that he'd like to hear more sounds in the mix, suggesting perhaps horn players or another guitarist, writing, "The point: More toys!"
Guest judge Rodney Block appreciated the variety in Flint Eastwood's set. "Very smooth lyricist," he wrote of Flint. "Very Kid Cudi-like." Block too said he'd like to hear more guitar, but overall, he said it was "swank hip-hop music" from "a very precise group of musicians." Judge CT wrote: "Nice, different, very good. Certain songs really hit hard."
Here's what the judges had to say about this week's winner, The Stephen Neeper Band:
Guest judge Rodney Block: "Great outros/intros — love your transitions between one selection to the next. Overall, great stage energy — it counts to make the audience feel like a part of the performance."
Grayson Shelton: "Good transition, great stage show. You can tell they play a shit-ton of shows. It's the Stephen Neeper Band, but every musician is solid, great collection of musicians top-to-bottom."
Mandy McBryde: "Gigantic. These guys are doin' it right."
CT: "Nailed it. Bad-ass. Thank you."
Round 3 lineup
Freedom Bureau: Among other influences, Little Rock's Freedom Bureau mines a similar vein of scratchy, off-kilter Americana as David Berman's brilliant Silver Jews did in that band's early years — shambolic and perfectly out-of-tune, informed in equal measure by folk rock, noise rock and classic rock and unafraid to get weird. The Bureau's got all that down, friends. Just check out "Gold Mine" for proof.
Gwendlyn Kay: Hailing from Shirley (Van Buren County), Gwendlyn Kay offers a small-town Arkansas take on country that draws from classic performers like Loretta Lynn to contemporary stars like Miranda Lambert. She can do sad as well as sassy. Check out "This is Me Without You," a gem of a kiss-off, with wit and country-girl charm to spare. "No more chili dogs for Thanksgiving dinner / When it comes to real losers baby you are a winner."
The Revolutioners: Little Rock's The Revolutioners combine the ear candy of Top 40 hooks with balls-out rock 'n' roll bravado. They sound like driving down a lonely state highway on a late summer night in a convertible Mustang at 90 mph with the top down, then stopping for a make-out sesh with your girlfriend. Does that make sense? The band is hella tight and singer Phil Houston (also of Se7en Sharp) has a killer set of pipes. It all adds up to unabashed rawkin', especially on the AC/DC-esque "Love Punch."
Mothwind: In the immortal words of Hawkwind, "Space is Deep." And as such, it is ripe for exploration, which is exactly what Little Rock trio Mothwind is all about. Like contemporaries such as The Sword, Mothwind is clearly heading for the furthest reaches of the universe of heavy riffage. The band's lineup — including members of Vore, The Year of the Tiger and Holy Angell — bodes well for such a venture, but if you're in need of sonic affirmation, check out the track "Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle."