The Winner: Ladies to the front! Dazz & Brie and their band The Emotionalz killed it like anyone who's ever seen them live knew they would. The self-described "girl gang" rocked military jackets handpainted with their album name "Can't Afford California," gave the middle finger to Sallie Mae with some divine melismas, and handled persistent sound issues with grace and aplomb.
Just before the band's set, two men in baseball caps and substantial beards stood just ahead of me, hands in pockets, wordless, watching the group's bass player sling a hefty five-string over her shoulder. A few minutes later, one of them turned to the other and said, "They're pretty good." Twenty minutes later, the same two men were doin' the Dougie with reckless abandon in between shooting mini-videos of the performance. I don't know how many keys were on that M50 they used, but I'm pretty sure the band's keyboard player (who'd switched to keys after drumming for a few tunes) used every damn one of them in a single organ solo. The crowd demanded an encore, our judges voted them into the final round with the quickness, and the band made good on their professed mission of "trying to change the world, one weirdo at a time."
"Rhythm section tight as hell. Both drummers have crushed it."
"Rock and roll soul. Awaken masses and spread good vibes."
"The sound is not mixed well. Not fair!"
"Tight as fuck. Not breaking a ton of ground in song structure or composition but doing an exemplary job of blending genres. Very solid band with above average vocals."
"Talk about girl power!"
The Runner-Up: Armed with no musical gear save for a sharp tongue, a whip-smart memory and a laptop full of beats produced by collaborator Idle Kid, Solo Jaxon's set was heavy as hell, and what one of our judges called "the highlight of the showcase." Fellow Young Gods of America lyricist Goon des Garcons made a cameo in his beloved Meat Loaf t-shirt, "No Reason" was delivered as a righteously indignant critique of the criminal justice system and the audience was informed in no uncertain terms that "bullying of any kind is not the shit."
"Loved that last one. Thought you left it all on the stage."
Mortalus: Michelle Gann can wail and she can growl and she can shred like a boss. Mortalus thrashed their way through a monster set infused with crunch and philosophy and darkness and breakneck speed. The band's not afraid to get Bruce Dickinson-level theatrical; turning their guitar necks vertically, letting a high note soar for days and days, mugging for the camera during a beastly solo. They missed a few sudden tempo changes here and there, but as the lone metal band in this year's showcase, they brought it hard and dropped some jaws in the audience. Oh, and kudos for ending their set, the first of the night, by introducing the three other groups by name and encouraging the audience to stick around.
"Freddie Mercury meets Metallica meets Iron Maiden."
"Some of the changes and hits didn't fall right, but very fun and powerful."
"Lead guitar/vocalist murdering the solos. Her vocals are a little uneven but kudos for singing while shredding."
Youth Pastor: "Praisin' and blazin." How I wish this band had been around circa 2002 or so in the college dorm room! We'd have all smoked approximately 7% more pot. They sound like what would happen if a scientist took DNA samples from Ween's "A Tear for Eddie" and used it to grow an entire band from a giant petri dish laced with Beach Boys harmonies. Potentially to their detriment, they make the listener want to stare into a lava lamp for extended periods of time, but their tongue-in-cheek church camp parody went gangbusters because they were so committed to it, interspersing songs with preacher cadences, altar calls and improvised scripture. It can be pretty cringeworthy when a schtick doesn't work, but this band made it work in spades. Having driven down in a huge brown van from their native Fayetteville, these young men were waylaid with a flat tire somewhere around Ozark and still managed to show up on time, fresh as daisies.