The 2015 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase kicked off last Thursday night with Secondhand Cannons, who wore blue jeans and flannel shirts and very early on announced their sincere intention to "pack as much rock as we can" into their set. On their score sheets, three out of five judges described them as "solid." The highlight of their performance might have been their drummer, who wore sunglasses and was a dead-ringer for Ron Jeremy. Judge Mitchell Crisp wrote understandably that she "totally wanted to ride around his 1970 Chevelle listening to T-Rex." They dutifully packed as much rock as they could into their 30 minutes, and for this we were grateful.
Off to the side of the stage, I noticed and became briefly entranced by three women in their mid-40s wearing red, white and blue sweaters who were swaying to the Cannons in perfect sync, making hand motions that seemed, but couldn't possibly have been, rehearsed. The lights swelled dramatically while they danced, and they were each beaming, and whoever they were, they were the best part of the night.
Redefined Reflection showed up with their own banner, which they hung behind the stage over the official showcase design. This struck me as self-assured and fearless in an endearing way. They wore a lot of leather, which only furthered this impression. Guest judge Jeremy Glover described their set as "guttural rock that puts me in the mood for a bit of the old ultraviolence," while judge Derek Brooks wrote that they "punch you in the face with their hard rock sound."
Sherwood alt-metal band Consumers went last and impressed with what judge Joe Holland characterized as that elusive, " 'seasoned veteran' vibe." Judge Shayne Gray deemed them "radio-ready," and Brooks complimented their "stage presence" and "good range."
The night's big winner, however, by something like common consensus, was Little Rock psych-rock band Open Fields, which played hypnotic cosmic-rock jams and a kind of carnivalesque '60s pop that occasionally mutated into something darker and harder-edged. Their front man had long, wild hair and a moustache that contributed to a general Laurel Canyon/David Crosby vibe, and at one point paused the show to thank "God and the devil and 'My Dog Skip' and 'That Darn Cat' and all manner of highs and lows."
Brooks was a fan of their "awesome melodic texture," and Gray of their "mesmerizing rock psychedelia." "This is Sunday music," Glover wrote. "If you are attempting to piece the story together, put your world back in frame, Open Fields' ethereal, otherworldly crooning punctuated with vaudeville and psychedelic thump might just hold the key." Early Pink Floyd and Galaxie 500 and Elephant 6 were all cited as antecedents. Crisp summed up the judges' general feeling, noting, "I freaking love this band."
Here's the lineup for Round 2, which will be at Stickyz on Thursday, Feb. 5, at 9 p.m.:
Big Still River
Little Rock's Big Still River, formerly known as Big Steel River, plays upbeat, outlaw bluegrass about "dark and shallow" graves and lovers on the run and "Hillbilly Sweat." Its presence in this year's showcase promises to infuse the proceedings with a sense of rustic, pre-industrial sophistication. Also, mandolin solos.
The members of Hot Springs band The Federalis have been making music together since high school, and play blues-inflected alternative rock. Guitarist Zakk Binns also plays with CeDell Davis, which is a pretty good endorsement. Also, and this seems significant, they have a song called "Fox and the Hound," which was the first movie that ever made me cry.
The night's most danceable band, Ghost Bones, is based in Hot Springs and specializes in jagged, four-on-the-floor post-punk. Front woman Ashley Hill sings in a languid, captivating near-monotone, and the result sounds like ESG or Pylon and is generally great.
Black Horse is the brainchild of Little Rock's David Richmond, who boldly claims of his own songs on Facebook, "Most are terrible but some are good." Richmond is being radically, irresponsibly modest here, as his songs are only terrible in the sense that they are unhinged and antic and wired and brutal, which is to say they aren't at all terrible. They'll close out the night with their own brand of wild, energetic garage punk.