From the large crowds all last year during the five weeks of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase and the big turnouts we've had for the first two nights this year, the contest has become a win-win-win: for the musicians, many of whom haven't been heard until they play the show; Juanita's Cantina Ballroom, one of the longtime co-sponsors along with KMJX-FM, Magic 105; and the Arkansas Times. Three shows remain, including the finals, which the Times and Juanita's have decided to move to Saturday, Feb. 28 (from the traditional Friday night spot), so as not to conflict with Alltel's Kid Rock/Puddle of Mudd concert Feb. 20 and Linkin Park Feb. 27. Darn that Michael Marion for doing his job and bringing big acts opposite our Showcase. Seriously, the arena is one of our supporting partners, providing a judge for each of the five nights as well as some nice door prizes - we gave away tickets to the Toby Keith show the first week and tickets to an upcoming motocross event last Thursday. Marion promises now to send along some Kid Rock tickets to give away, since we won't be going head-to-head. (The Feb. 28 date puts the Showcase opposite George Strait in Alltel, but we were running out of days at that point.) On Thursday, Feb. 5, when this paper hits the streets, five bands of wide diversity are scheduled to be on the stage - acoustic rock band The August; country and bluegrass act Lost and Found; jam band Free Verse; rhythm and blues act Ricky White and hip-hop group "J." The fourth semifinal, Feb. 12, will feature the Subcons (maybe best described as art rock?), the acoustic pop Sara Thomas Band, the heavy rock of Jonesboro's FurtherDown, and the modern near-goth sounds of Between the Second (one of the preliminary judges describes them as sounding like Evanescence meets A Perfect Circle). Poeboy Society, playing basic rock 'n' roll with energetic front man John Neal, who seemed at times to channel Mick Jagger, and Fayetteville's Grandpa's Goodtime Fandango, which mixes jazzy jamming with world beat and rock, advanced to the Feb. 28 finals with wins the first two weeks. GGF was the tightest group to perform thus far, though the youthful energy of PM Today got the crowd excited and nearly carried the day. We expect to hear more from Jacksonville's PM Today, which had an average age of 15.5 years. Mike Robinson brought a band this year, and his solid country drew judges' praises. Happenstance also impressed with solid songwriting and playing. Poeboy Society barely escaped a strong performance by first-timers Cosmic Debris. Obviously, Cosmic Debris members have played somewhere, a lot, and for such a new band were amazingly tight with their jazz-influenced rock. Poeboy's edge came in the overall stage presence and crowd response, as the musicianship edge clearly was in Cosmic's show. As with PM Today, we expect to hear much more from School Boy Humor, a quartet of Central High students who kicked off the Showcase with a raw, rousing 30 minutes of originality, clearly influenced by the Blink 182-type bands. That was followed by Johnny Mac, who had some terrific rock songs in an Elvis Costello style but who would have scored more with the judges had he brought a band with him. Johnny had his fans, though, and he handled all the parts, having tracked the drums, bass and second guitar. Here's an endorsement for any smaller club looking from a complete one-man band with some likable tunes and an interesting stage setup. We have every reason to believe this Thursday and the next are going to be just as competitive and fun, and with only two weeks now before the finals, anticipation is running high for those last four performances. The winner on Feb. 28 will take home 10 hours of recording time at Doghouse Studio in west Little Rock, $200 in music equipment from the Guitar Center, a guaranteed spot in Riverfest, food for the entire band from Trio's Restaurant, a photo shoot with Brian Chilson, the Arkansas Times' gifted and workaholic photographer who has been shooting every night of the Showcase until midnight; and more. Harbor Distributing (Miller Lite distributors) will even pony up a keg of beer for the winning band. But the biggest prize for all the bands is that a lot of people are hearing them that might not otherwise have known about them, meaning word is getting around about talented original music in Arkansas. Clubs are always looking for new acts to add to their lineups. We're certain a few of these are going to find new bookings in the coming months. In the meantime, join us at Juanita's.