You’ve all seen Star Search, that cheesy show from the ’80s and ’90s where contestants like Rosie O’Donnell, Sawyer Brown and Sam Harris (anyone remember this mulleted crooner who had a ridiculous winning streak with his ear-piercing rendition of “Over The Rainbow”?) compete for a chance at superstardom, prize money and a recording contract. Thankfully, the days of that primetime cheese fest have gone the way of the parachute pant. However, the search for talent continues; everyone from local labels to the majors is beating the bushes nationwide looking for the next big thing. Thankfully, the folks at Raleigh-based Deep South Records & Entertainment have always had their eyes open for up-and-coming acts, and last week’s showcase at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre proved that the Southeast is thick with bands on the cusp of fame.
Andy Martin and Dave Rose, the owners of Deep South, had maintained a friendship with one of Sony/Epic’s vice presidents of A&R (Artists and Repertoire) for quite some time. Deep South hoped to create a music showcase in which they could feature a few of their acts and expose Triangle talent to major label representatives. It works like this: Bands get started playing gigs on a local level and once they’ve endured the frat-house/local-club circuit, they move up to regional exposure, touring and perhaps self-releasing a record or putting one out on a homegrown independent label. After they’ve built up a significant local/regional following and gotten some exposure, the majors come calling. It’s a lot like professional baseball. Bands spend time in the minors, honing their craft and gaining some notoriety with the hopes that, once they sign with a major, they’ll find a producer, release an album and–voila!–become the next Matchbox 20. Rarely, if ever, does a band start playing in January and have a deal by that December. That’s why showcases like this are crucial for bands looking to take their act “to the next level.” For Epic’s Director of A&R Lee Ferruci, these events provide him with “an opportunity to get out of New York and see what’s happening on a grassroots level.”
The mood in the Lincoln was somewhat subdued as the showcase kicked off last Monday night. With eight bands playing each night, the show had to get underway at 8 p.m.–not the most club-friendly hour. R&B singers Mashonda and JL got things rolling, each singing along to pre-recorded instrumental tracks. Then Raleigh’s Revelation Darling took the stage, with singer Alex Lawhon providing a welcome boost of energy, leaping up and down from the drum riser and putting on a show for the label types. Next up was Parklife, a Raleigh trio featuring former Connells drummer Peele Wimberly. With fuzzed-out pop and a touch of irony (one song in their set was titled “Everybody Wants To Be A Star”), Parklife took the baton and ran with it. Far Too Jones then proved their radio-friendly reputation was indeed earned. Singer Chris Spruill thumbed his nose at comparisons, claiming, “Nobody here is the next Creed or ‘N Sync, but we’ve got some damn good bands [in the Southeast].”
Oedipus Dick, a Raleigh funk/jazz/comedy trio, proved to be the best and most out-of-place act of the entire event. With songs like “Malt Liquor” and “Rollerball” (an homage to the awesome James Caan sci-fi film), Oedipus Dick employed effects-heavy standup bass and tweaked-out keyboards to augment their riotously funny lyrics. Drummer Chip Steiner quipped during a song break, “I’m not really sure why we’re here, ’cause nobody in their right mind is going to sign us.” The band then proceeded to explain why, with bassist Henry S. Marr singing “You can’t say Oedipus Dick on the radio/You can’t say Oedipus Dick on TV.” Weekend Excursion, whose devoted fans showed up en masse for a 20-minute set, proceeded to give the young ladies what they wanted: poppy, hook-driven love songs. Sadly, Fat Head Otis set about their turn on stage with much of Weekend Excursion’s crowd long gone. Their 20 minutes of grunge throwbacks showed promise if not polish.
Night 2 got underway Tuesday with Astronauts of Antiquity, a six-piece act blending Indian flavors with DJ driven electronica. Sankofa then proceeded to take control of the stage and a crowd that obviously was not familiar with their brand of funk-laced hip hop found their heads bobbing involuntarily. Their set featured booty shakin’ bass and drums (courtesy of Brandau and The Apple Juice Kid), live scratching from DJ Pez, a mind-blowing guitarist capable of making his six-string sound like an electric keyboard, and mellifluous backing vocals from a Dido-style singer. But without a doubt, MC Cream (Stefan Greenlee) is the man representing Sankofa front and center, ripping rhymes at the speed of sound and possessing a powerful aura of confidence. In fact, the band has flirted with fame already, making it to the semi-finals of MTV’s Ultimate Online Hip-Hop Talent Search, in addition to opening spots for Busta Rhymes, The Roots and other rap acts. If anyone in this showcase stands a chance of being signed by a major, it’s this Chapel Hill clique.
Following the diminutive-yet-soulful 19-year-old Emma Woods, Raleigh rockers Brown cranked up the smoke machine and proceeded to kick out the jams. Some of you may remember this writer’s less-than-kind review of Brown’s demo release, Satellite, as well as the blistering response from guitarist/producer John Custer. But Brown proved that their live act overshadows their studio work. Their opening number was all sturm und drang, with frontman Reed Mullin pimping about in a faux fur coat a la Kid Rock, the volume cranked up to deafening. Brown’s slower-paced numbers came off a bit heavy on the power-ballad tip, but they certainly had the most polished stage act of any band at the showcase.
Greenville’s Parmalee also proved that volume is your friend. With stacks of Marshall amps and numerous guitar changes, the band’s ear-bleeding noise quotient and power chord bravado showed tons of potential. Lucky Town, hailing from Virginia Beach, again displayed the variety of sounds the Southeast has to offer with their alt-rock-pop. Singer Courtney Criswell combines a dynamic stage presence, golden voice and knockout looks and shares a distinct chemistry with her bandmates. Runaway Cab, another pop act, had a good, if subdued, set, and Raleigh’s Alabaster Suitcase closed the evening with some inspired rock from their latest disc, Stranger Things Have Happened.
When asked what he thought of the talent presented at the showcase, Lee Ferrucci gushed, “I was truly impressed. Everybody was talented; their stage shows were tight. I thought everyone put on a good show.” Epic has already completed similar showcases in other major markets and plans are underway for several more. “I’m out meeting people, getting to know bands and establishing relationships for the future,” he said. So while Ed McMahon won’t be waiting in the wings with a big cardboard check, some of these acts may be hearing from Ferrucci and Epic Records in the near future.
However, Sam Harris got a record deal over a decade ago. Anyone heard from him lately?