Round 4 of the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase opened with The Talking Liberties, by which I mean singer, guitarist and keyboard-wrangler Wes Acklin, a drummer in a Superman T-shirt and two back-up dancers wearing full-body silver jumpsuits and goggles. Acklin leapt and emoted to the point of near-exhaustion while the dancers shimmied and chatted quietly with their arms folded in between songs. Judge Stephen Neeper awarded high marks for Acklin’s “enthusiasm” as well his “multi-tasking,” and after the set, the dancers gave our photographer their business card.
Next up was Crash Meadows from Hot Springs, a blues-rock band who upset judge Stacie Mack by wearing socks with their sandals (“NO,” she wrote, underlining the word twice). Meanwhile, guest judge Shawn Brown, who once opened for Run D.M.C., called their set a “soundtrack to scenic Arkansas,” and Neeper complimented the singer’s “huge lungs.”
The Machete With Love’s frontman calls himself Paperking, and he led off their sound check by rapping, “If it wasn’t for a mic check, I wouldn’t have a check at all.” Neeper wrote that their set was like the Beastie Boys and early Red Hot Chili Peppers “had a child,” and Brown wrote “Look out Kid Rock.” During a particularly energetic moment in one of their songs, Paperking whipped out a harmonica and ripped a quick solo before collapsing in a tired heap at the front of the stage.
The night, though, ultimately belonged to the last band of the round: Duckstronaut. Imagine a man in a purple Mohawk sitting at a desk with a washboard in his lap. In front of him is a black laptop and a set of guitar pedals. Standing next to him is a bald and heavily bearded guitarist who just gets madder as he sings, except when he’s busy playing the electric dulcimer. Also there is slap bass: That’s Duckstronaut. Judge Bryan Frazier noted their “masterful use of instruments and household objects”; he also wrote the phrase “eloquent earthquakes.” Neeper wrote, “In the midst of all this weirdness, there are some really great songs,” which is probably as close as anyone has gotten so far to summing up the whole showcase.
The final semifinal round is at 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, at Stickyz. Remember to also mark your calendar for Friday, March 7, when we’ll host the finals at Revolution. Here’s the last semifinal lineup:
My Brother / My Friend
Last time I wrote something about Conway I got hate mail, but I will say this about that backwards town: There are real bands there, and My Brother / My Friend is one of them. Their songs are drenched in echo, reverb and smooth, post-rock ambience, and singer Joshua Stewart’s voice floats above it all with strain and subtlety. “Our interest is life,” they say in their bio online. “Living it with those we love, a family we have chosen, and sending beautiful music out into the great unknown.” The great unknown, or as I like to call it: Conway.
Shawn James and the Shapeshifters
Fayetteville’s Shawn James and the Shapeshifters have spent the last year working on what they call “an ambitious trilogy of connected concept EPs,” consisting of “The Wolf,” “The Bear” and “The Hawk,” all of which are available for free at ShawnJamesSoul.Bandcamp.com. It’s an accomplished and strange series of releases, each with distinct stories and sounds, mostly hovering around a kind of cabaret-tinged apocalyptic-folk with pagan undertones. James has said that the stories here are inspired by “Native American myths.” The first is about a boy raised by wolves, the second a “big, ferocious bear as he awakes from hibernation consumed by hunger and heads south to hunt,” and, well, he hasn’t explained the third one yet, but I’m sure it’s something intense. There’s slide guitar and gloomy violin accompaniment and even the occasional Tom Waits growl.
John Neal Rock ‘N’ Roll
John Neal claims he’s “big in Mexico City,” and I have no reason to doubt this, but he’s first and foremost a Little Rock native: “Win, lose or draw, I’m for Arkansas,” as he puts it. That’s on a song called “Win, Lose or Draw,” on which he also calls himself a “poor man’s Black Keys” and says he’s “just trying to get my songs a little play on TV.” His words, not mine — I actually think he’s being a little hard on himself. “Rock ‘N’ Roll” is his last name after all, and he earns it song for song. Plus he sells customized beer koozies.
The Vail makes gothic rock outfitted with static and sadness, they have a song called “Nightmares” (“the dying sun destroys the moon” rhymes with “all our nightmares coming true”) and they’ve opened for Rob Zombie. One of the guys in Evanescence wrote a blurb for their debut online and recommended it “for fans of ’90s era industrial rock.” This might seem backhanded considering The Vail didn’t exist in the ’90s, but I think it was meant in good faith and it’s hard to disagree.