Like I've said before, we call it the Musicians Showcase for a reason. If you've come out these four weeks, I hope you'd agree that Arkansas's got talent. Perhaps in no week was the variety of that talent on display like it was last Thursday. Ryan Couron kicked it off with radio-ready new country, and Iron Tongue closed it out with throwback metal. In between, Outstanding Red Team offered rowdy barroom rock (and got a cocktail glass hurled at them in exchange) and Underclaire tore through smart, wrenching alt-pop. It was a great night for folks with catholic taste in music. But the judges judged and Underclaire came out on top.
It was obvious from the first couple of bars Underclaire is practiced. The four-piece, together almost a decade longer than most other Showcase acts, plays with a precision rarely seen in local bands. Which is not to say that you'd be just as happy sitting at home listening to their latest CD. Nope, Underclaire's live show is dynamic. Mike Mullins and Edison DeLeon kick out striking guitar lines that weave and build and crash together anthemically. Bassist Rob Brackett looks like he just started driving (so do I, Rob), but reels off prog-y bass lines. And Bryan Baker's totally earned his way into the pantheon of Showcase drummers (say hi to Velvet Kente's Jamal Lee and Jonathan Wilkins and the Reparations' Will Boyd). On a scaled back kit, he stayed as busy as any drummer in town — he plays a lot of fills — yet always remained within the song.
Underclaire sounds like a lot of early indie-rock, pop-punk … OK, emo: Braid, The Deftones, The Dismemberment Plan. But like my colleague JT Tarpley pointed out, the band's grown beyond its influences, rather than simply Xeroxing them. Can't wait to catch 'em in the finals.
If you're a fan of contemporary country and you've somehow managed to miss Ryan Couron, who gigs just about three days a week in Central Arkansas, you've been blowing it. Because he's got mad national potential. Tall and with a strong country tenor, the young singer/songwriter and his studio-grade backing band sticks close to the Music Row formula — mixing a hearty bit of twang with arena rock flourish in songs about huntin' and fishin' and putting it on thick in ballads about girls who're just like heaven. But that's often what it takes to succeed in the business.
Outstanding Red Team, perhaps the newest band in the Showcase, offered a charmingly sloppy set. Like Greg Spradlin said, it's a band that's “refreshingly, artfully Stooge-y.” Which is to say that under all the hollerin' and garage noise there's some really cleverly wrought pop songs. None more so than “The Prize Winning Racehorse,” in which lead singer Brian Hirrel reels off a catalog of rapidly delivered sports references, and backing vocalists Slaughterhouse and Jimmy Young (who was celebrating his 40th birthday last Thursday) chime in with tremendously catchy vocal hooks. It's definitely the single.
ORT's frenetic set came to an equally harried end when some asshole, who perhaps had watched the cowboy club scene in “Blues Brothers” one too many times, launched a cocktail grass at Hirrel's head. Luckily, he ducked. And the asshole was brusquely — but sadly not sleeper-hold-brusquely — shown the door.
If you have a soft spot for the early days of metal, Iron Tongue's your new favorite local band. This oddball five-piece, featuring more vets of pop-rock and blues-rock bands than metal ones, is, as guest judge Jeff Riggs said, “metal so heavy it should be described in tonnage.” But, at the same time, it's not unrelenting or abrasive. There's slow-grind sludge, but also plenty of almost stoner-rock riffage. The most obvious metal signifier is lead singer CT's demonic, guttural holler. He's terrifying. In fact, joshua said he could hear his songs in a reoccurring nightmare he's been having about blue elves. Except, he said, there's no way he'd let a tambourine — which CT shook occasionally — in his heavy metal dream.
This Thursday, once again at 9 p.m. at Sticky Fingerz, we debut a new wrinkle. The wildcard round pits the four second place finishers from the semi-finals in a battle to win your vote. Yup, the judges get the night off and leave it to you. Everyone that enters will get a special ticket. Near the Times table there'll be a bucket for each act. At any point during the night, you'll be able to cast your vote by dropping your ticket into your band's bucket.
So, yes, it could be simply a popularity contest, though if each of the participants brings a crowd like they did in the semi-finals, they'll all be on even ground. Also, hopefully, a few of you will come with an open mind.
Below, I've got refreshers on each of the wildcard acts and a case for each to win.
Stella Fancy, from round one, plays an irresistible brand of garage-style bossa nova. The band's been around for a while, but only since late fall in this incarnation. The five-piece's newness doesn't show except that they're playing new songs you probably haven't heard. With Jen Shaw (vocals, guitar), JP Langston (guitar), Jon Bierman (bass), Damian Thompson (congas), Dan Huff (drums).
Why they'll win: Because, like JT Tarpley said in his recap of round one, they're impossible not to like. Their arrangements, their hooks, their wardrobe choices (suits last time), Jen Shaw's voice — all pretty much irresistible. Don't discount charm.
Bonnie Montgomery also came from round one. As the highest point getter among third place finishers, she fills a spot Big Boots won, but had to decline (Boots lead singer Mason Maudlin is in Vancouver watching the Olympics). Fresh from several years in Nashville, the White County native writes folk-pop worthy of Music City and sings in a pitch-perfect voice that's a testament to years of studying opera.
Why she'll win: Because Nashville and opera are an affecting combo. And her songs are that good. Plus, she's a new commodity, and who doesn't like to see a new face mix it up?
Flash LaRue, from round three, includes members of Notion and The Poeboy Society and specializes in a winning brand of big tent rock 'n' roll. A lot of their shifting arrangements sound like contemporary indie rock, but at other times, they're full tilt Southern rock.
Why they'll win: Because they're infectious. And even with all the stylistic shifts, they're still the most straightforward rock 'n' roll act in the wildcard round. Everyone loves the rawk.
Iron Tongue, of course, came from round four. I told you about them above.
Why they'll win: Because throwback metal rules. And for sheer spectacle, Iron Tongue's hard to beat.
UPCOMING SHOWCASE SCHEDULE
March 5: Bobby, Elise Davis, Brother Andy & His Big Damn Mouth, Underclaire
Who? Lead singer/songwriter in last year's winner, Velvet Kente.
On Underclaire. Absolutely superb musicianship. Strong melodies and head-nodding polyrhythms. Very apparent attention paid to song structure and composition.
Who? Director of the Arkansas Community Arts Cooperative (ACAC).
On Underclaire. I deem this nu emo. The
vocal effects, the drumming, the power chords — it all equals emotional, tailored semi-rock. The chicks dig it, but it's just not my bag.
Who? Local guitar god and vocalist.
On Underclaire. We haven't seen this level of performance thus far. Great songs done well. Really top notch.
Who? Local music geek and proxy judge.
On Underclaire. Tuned-in and talented musicians.
Who? Host of “Arkansas Showcase,” Fridays noon-2 p.m. on KABF 88.3 FM.
On Underclaire. Well controlled rock. Definitely a group to see.