Last week, after the weekly tornado sprint through Central Arkansas was finished, Stickyz filled up for the penultimate semi-finals round. The lineup was the most varied — and, some said, the most competitive — of this year's showcase so far.
Ultimately, Mandy McBryde, the quick-lipped progeny of a touring country music family, led her rockin' country (not the other way around) backing band, the Unholy Ghost, to a well-deserved victory and our fourth of five spots for Friday night's finals at Revolution.
With jaunty melodies in a minor key, McBryde's songs, she said from stage, are about "gettin' [her] heart broken, but mostly about drinkin' whiskey." They're also steeped in empowered Loretta Lynn sass. But to box her in as merely a female in a man's world is unfair. She's as much a product of Merle Haggard's "misery and gin" as she is a resident of Loretta's "Fist City."
While she's been an engaging solo performer for years, her new drum/bass/pedal steel backing, all done near-flawlessly, has launched her into a completely new, more confident stratum, one that's as much Texas psych as Texas two-step.
Still, one might argue that the big win of the fourth round belonged to the night's opener, Thunder Thieves. While the unknown four-piece from Perry (population: teeny) didn't advance to the finals round, the Thieves bowled over the night's crowd with their quaking, dynamic indie rock. Founded by brothers J.D. and Justin Parker, who share vocal duties on both bass and guitar, the multi-instrumentalist newcomers tossed instruments back and forth between songs, drove through early-Modest Mouse rhythms and Cold War Kids-esque melodies, leaving our judges asking "Where the hell are these guys from?" and "When the hell can I see them again?"
Even cooler: It was their debut show. Even cooler than that: Drummer/vocalist J.D. Parker recently returned home from his second tour of Iraq. Something definitely tells me we may have seen the Next Big Thing with these guys.
Ginsu Wives, probably the most established band of this year's showcase, proved exactly why the deep grooving, designer-drugged robot rockers have earned the band its reputation as one of the state's weirdest, most loved and gleefully slimy acts. During its abbreviated set of "greatest hits," the act delivered its signature grimy mash of soul, metal, funk and post-punk with front-man Chris Hairston (alias F.A.C.T.S., one of the most compelling, experimental emcees in town) twiddling his vocal pedal from death metal Megatron bass to Chip and Dale squeakiness, both to terrifyingly awesome effect. Also, Ginsu Wives was the first band in recent memory to earn a perfect score from a judge.
A last-minute addition to the fourth round, The Safe and Sounds, closed out a diverse night with a jam-infused take on harmonic pop. By keeping its set conversational and loose and the music peppy and tight (its four-part harmonies may have been the most impressive vocals on display in the entire showcase), the Conway's keyboard-driven pop act handily won over the late-night crowd.
Round five, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3, Stickyz, $5
Brethren. Surely one of the best blues bands in the state, this Hot Springs outfit has spent years providing a versatile, driving backing force for CeDell Davis, the roots legend and a proto-punk if the blues ever had one. From Clarksville to Minnesota and everywhere in between, the band's brought the bumping, grinding sound of the Delta to blues festivals the nation over.
Think: Party music. No: party music for real parties.
The Pink Drapes. "Shoegaze" pops to mind immediately, but behind the blankets of reverb and billows of distortion, The Pink Drapes offer an '80s pop melodicism not found in the bulk of fellow My Bloody Valentine-loving fuzz-fiends. Regulars in the Little Rock and Fayetteville underground house show circuits, the trio will play one of its first club dates on Thursday.
,b>Think: Textures, colors, movement and warmth with a twist of high school crush.
Michael Leonard Witham. Fingerpicking his way through the sounds of the Dust Bowl, Laurel Canyon, Omaha and Joshua Tree, Calif., Michael Leonard Witham and his harmonica rasp and bend their way through minor-key melancholy with a contagious sense of humor and colorful eye for characters in song.
Think: All those hokey Midwestern folkies with worn guitars, except really, really good.
This Holy House. It's Indie, capitalized, italicized and bolded. Raised in Greenbrier and uprooted to Conway, brothers David and James Velek and frontman Elliott Cotton offer a certain musical whimsy beside their sonic sincerity. Treading the same ground as Band of Horses or Pedro the Lion, This Holy House had the chops to make the cut and the ambition to do well for themselves Thursday night.
Think: The band your college's Erosophic Society and Bible study group can agree on.
Finals, 8 p.m. Friday, March 4. Revolution, $10.
Tyrannosaurus Chicken. I still can't figure out whether this ramshackle duo is the band to beat or the finals' dark horse upsetter to watch out for. The group swept the first night — the only decisive victory of all four rounds — and still stands out from the competition with its fantastically wrecked blues revisionism that's reckless and sloppy and ear-bendingly musical all at once.
Why it'll win: It's simple: T. Chicken is irresistible. And the duo doesn't sound like anyone else, anywhere, ever.
The Year of the Tiger. The second round got an injection of hard, electronic rock that's viscerally assaulting, unsettlingly dystopian and undeniably catchy. All four members of the band are old hands on Little Rock stages, used to this kind of acclaim from their other bands, notably Underclaire and The Moving Front. But this type of fresh project could be a source of new inspiration for the local vets.
Why it'll win: Because in music, intensity always sells. And these guys have intensity by the amp full.
Sea Nanners. Fresh out of the stable and sporting a new name, Sea Nanners (formerly Reptar) kept it focused and unbelievably creative during the third round win. Although the show was one of the young band's first, the wiry, purposely jittery act propelled though its reverbed, dusky Americana, drawing overflowing accolades from the judges and amplifying its already cacophonous buzz even louder.
Why it'll win: In a town rich with throwback rockers, it's refreshing to hear a fiercely fashionable, ultra-current band ready for blogs, not bars.
Mandy McBryde and the Unholy Ghost. Well, just see above.
Why it'll win: Because accessibility isn't a bad thing. The group's "modern sounds in country and western music" are so good, they don't need an angle.
The winner of Thursday's night's semi-finals. ?
Why it'll win: It won the night before, didn't it?