The first round of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase couldn't have gone any better. Even with post-Van Halen hangovers and amidst bad weather, a large and lively crowd came out, the judges stayed attentive throughout and all four acts gave strong performances.
Here's a rundown:
The Running Back, the young indie pop band from Arkadelphia, kicked off things admirably. Lead singer Alan Thomas had been battling a cold, but his vocals came through full and clear. Our judge Davis Clement thought the band had its “finger on current pop trends without being derivative,” while Razormack.com was “pleasantly surprised” by the horn the band brought out and impressed by its “versatility.” The band's “Cotton Lungs” demo suggests promise; I'll definitely have my eye on the Running Back as it releases a proper full-length and continues to play out and about.
Riverboat Crime, out of North Little Rock, followed impressively. Lead singer Josh Stoffer is sick on the slide guitar, and he's got really big, bright pop vocals. The band, which has only been together five months, played it fast and loose and loud. The crowd dug it. Guest judge Zach Holland nominated RC for Sticky Fingerz house band and suggested they had the best band name in town, while Ben Jones and Razormack.com both appreciated the group's energy. Jones liked the band enough he even hit them up for a possible gig at Riverfest. You're likely to see more of Riverboat Crime after this gig.
Singer/songwriter Justin Bank went on third with a solid set of rollicking songs about girls. Nick Devlin accompanied and as usual played virtuosic guitar. Maybe this is a pairing that can happen regularly? Davis Clement suggested that “it's hard to stand out as an acoustic singer/songwriter, even with such a polished folksy tenor and clever lyrics.”
It was 607's night. The local rapper pulled out all the stops — opening with a drama mask obscuring his face, performing his “palingraph,” a rap that made sense forwards and backwards (he unfurled a large sheet with the lyrics so the audience could follow along), sampling Britney's “Toxic” and standing tall on the risers.
The crowd ate it up. It was a unanimous decision by the judges, who graded the semi-finalists on song quality, originality, musicianship, showmanship and crowd response, with a higher percentage of the score focused on song quality and originality.
Here's who is on tap this week:
The Reds. We named the band's debut album, “Economy of Motion” (Max Recordings), the fourth best local album of last year. Led by veteran Johnny Mac, the Reds (“like colors, not Communists”) specialize in a winning brand of spare, bass-heavy pop. Along with Mac on bass, Graham Cobb (il libertina, Five-O) plays guitar and Jason Thompson (Hector Faceplant) pounds out the drums. The band performs in public less than it might've years back, but you can still catch them every month or so. They play Sticky Fingerz again on Monday, Feb. 11.
Bryan Frazier with Action Figures. A longtime presence locally, Bryan Frazier has built his reputation on ethereal, tuneful indie-pop. For the Showcase gig, he'll be accompanied by John Davies on bass (Cate Brothers, Michael Burks Band), Jai Lambert on lead guitar (the Freds, Acoustic Pagans) and Steve Lane on drums. Frazier plays solo gigs frequently; you can catch him again on Friday at Lulav.
Notion. In our review of Notion's self-titled debut album, we said that lead singer Shaun Hartman “possesses one of the most powerful, chill-inducing voices this city has ever produced.” Eschewing current rock trends, the band moves easily from hip-hop influences to drum circle chants to electro to classic-rock-shaded material. Accompanying Hartman on guitar is Noel Moniot, with Brian Wolverton on bass and Sean Lyndsey on drums. Notion kicks off a regional tour on Feb. 28, with a performance at George's Majestic in Fayetteville. They'll also travel to Memphis and Springfield, Mo.
Epiphany and One Night Stand. From a one-off collaboration between local rapper Epiphany and a crew of jazz/soul/funk musicians, this vibrant outfit has become one of Little Rock's most in-demand hip-hop outfits. With local diva Gina Gee singing the hooks, the collective has dozens of shows under its belt and is currently in the studio working on new material. You can catch Epiphany (who heads up Conduit records) performing with Gina Gee at the H.A.P.S. Live event on Saturday at Windsong Performing Arts (see the To-Do List).
UPCOMING SHOWCASE SCHEDULE
Feb. 14: Ace Spade and the Whores of Babylon, Benjamin Del Shreve, Brian Martin and Rockst*r
Feb. 21: 4X4 Crew, Damn Bullets, Kyoto Boom and Natural State
Who? Singer/songwriter with the Boondogs
On the first round: You don't need an instrument on stage to prove that you know a thing or two about music. It just doesn't get much better than 607 referencing Brit Brit and the Sistine Chapel.
Who? Local hip-hop impresario
On the first round: 607 is to Arkansas hip-hop what Winston Smith was to the proles (“1984” reference).
Who? Booking agent for Porter-Jones Entertainment
On the first round: [607 is a] hip-hop mastermind. Amazing performer.
Who? Editor of localistmagazine.com
On the first round: Of piercing, introspective, indicting soapbox poetics,  is the undisputed laureate — and his relish for flamboyant showmanship is only gilding the lily.
Belvis the Black Elvis guest judge
Who? Local Elvis impersonator
Claim to fame: He gained national publicity in the New York Times and Wall Street for his performance serenading Hillary Clinton at Kitchen Express during a recent visit.