It's been said a million times before (for good reason) that Little Rock has entirely too much talent focused in such a small town. Sticky Fingerz certainly had a wealth of talent on its small stage for the first round of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase. Bonnie Montgomery, Stella Fancy, Cody Belew and Bobby set one heck of a high bar for the upcoming bands to try to vault. And the crowd, despite the impending ice dump, came out in droves and stuck around.
Gerard Matthews, Arkansas Times writer and the night's emcee, probably put it best while bidding the audience goodbye after first-round winner Bobby's set with a simple exclamation of “holy shit!” He certainly said what everyone else was thinking. Amplified, at that.
When Bobby took the stage for the final act of the night, a lot of the remaining crowd expected a great showing, but I doubt many realized they were about to see what could very well be remembered as a legendary set. The younger Tillman absolutely ate the stage and flawlessly needled half an hour of no B.S., no filler lyrics through the beat. If there was a single, polite golf clap in the room, I didn't hear it. Instead, it was all whoops, fist pumps and “yeaaaaahs” from where I was standing. Eloquence be damned: Bobby shredded it and I can't wait to see what he has up his sleeve for the finals.
Long-standing local favorites Stella Fancy are akin to a crew of grown-up Peanuts characters and your cooler older cousins, cranking out garage bossa nova after binging on creme de almond and Antonio-Carlos Jobim. Classy, playful and sporting more group dynamic than anyone else in town, they're a hugely likable band full of really likable folks. In fact, I'll go on record saying it takes a really miserable so-and-so to dislike this band. Look for these second-place finishers to put up a serious challenge to the other bands in the wild-card round.
Now, Bonnie Montgomery may have seemed a bit modest in comparison to Cody Belew and Bobby and perhaps a touch minimal next to Stella Fancy, but her shy charm, in music and in character, won over a sizable chunk of Thursday night's crowd. Her clever, funny lyrics shone when she performed solo and her voice — White County by way of Venice — sparkled even more when accompanied by Aaron David Baker and Mandy McBryde, who harmonizes only like someone with her bona fide and colorful music lineage could. Highlight of the set? The kazoo-infused “But I Won't.” Simple and catchy, it's been running through my head ever since.
I think it's safe to say that Cody Belew managed to take everyone out of their comfort zone. Even for a crowd with a diverse taste for music, his particular brand of “American Idol” country raised a number of eyebrows and, in the process, elicited a lot of comparisons to … Morrissey? OK. Belew was backed by a band composed of familiar locals; I assume they were tight, but wouldn't know, as his voice owned the rest of the mix. Regardless, with a TNN voice and Fox News charm (I promise that's not meant as a pejorative), I wouldn't be surprised to hear of him finding a supportive audience at Verizon one of these days.
Round two, 9 p.m.
Feb. 4, Sticky Fingerz:
3 Penny Acre
The contest's lone representative from Northwest Arkansas, this three-piece carves an egalitarian path. Everyone sings and everyone writes songs. Bryan Hembree, who co-founded the popular Fayetteville band Grandpa's Goodtime Fandango, put together 3 Penny Acre (named after the cost, roughly, of land included in the Louisiana Purchase) three years ago with his wife, Bernice Hembree, and Bayard Blain, a professional luthier who supplies instruments to Ezra Idlet, of Trout Fishing in America, and a number of other folk music standouts. Last year, the group won “Best New Band” at the Northwest Arkansas Music Awards and in two weeks it will head to the Folk Alliance in Memphis. It'll be well equipped. Its acoustic arsenal includes guitar, mandolin, upright bass, bouzouki (it's in the lute family) and brush bucket.
Few local acts come with better pop-rock pedigrees. Co-founders Mason Maudlin (guitar, vocals) and Michael Motley (drums, vocals) also co-founded Sugar in the Raw (later, after the threat of litigation, Sugar and the Raw), the Little Rock party band that packed out local rooms in the early part of the decade like no one in recent memory. And current bassist Trevor Ware — who's the fourth man to hold the job in two years, with Will Boyd, Jonathan Trotter and Luke Hunsicker as his predecessors — spent years in local teen-dream indie-pop sensation Grand Serenade. Together, they're drawing from Southern rock, Brit-rock (and pop) and indie rock. Guess what there's bound to be a lot of?
I think I said last week that none of the Showcase contestants had ever participated. I was wrong. Back when Elise Davis was 17, she made it to the semifinals with a band called the Sandbox Lizards. With experience that goes even beyond that — she started writing songs at 12 — Davis returns to the Showcase a seasoned vet. A UA Fayetteville senior, she has three albums under her belt and soon plans to record in Nashville with a producer who's worked with Alison Krauss. On Thursday, she'll be backed by Jordan Trotter (lead guitar), Trevor Ware (pulling double-duty on bass) and Joshua Tate (drums).
Matt Stell and the Crashers
One of the few Showcase acts who play music fulltime, this four-piece evolved out of a solo project by Center Ridge native Matt Stell, who started performing live during his sophomore year at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., which he attended on a basketball scholarship. In 2008, Stell released his debut album, “The Sound and the Story,” which gradually, thanks to hard touring and strong songwriting, has picked up a considerable amount of airplay in Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. Along the way, the band managed to pick up at least one high-profile fan: At the end of the month, former Drive-By Trucker and current alt-county star Jason Isbell will produce Stell and the Crashers' first album as a full band at legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals.
Read Rock Candy online (arktimes.com/blogs/rockcandy) for more on the Showcase, including song samples, audio, video and post-show reviews.