By Alessandro Improta
In case you missed it, check out our coverage of the Thursday night round of the Songwriter Showdown! Click here.
I have been to Muse many times before, and the one thing that is always present there is a fun atmosphere. That was not exactly the case when I first arrived last night. Though the Songwriter Showdown ultimately made for a good time, the feeling of competition before the show began was palpable. I was nervous, and I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t even in the competition. As the house filled up, each fan base separated themselves from the other in a way reminiscent of lunch in junior high. Darcie Roy got up on stage and began the night. She explained the structure of the competition, and the first round began.
The first round set the stage for everything to come. Taylor Woodward started out the night. He confidently got on stage and told the audience, “This song is about being alive, and it is called ‘I’m Not Dead.'” A fun song with real content, and cool guitar licks that he told us are “supposed to be the awesome guitar solo of this song.” This was great way to start the evening. I thought, “If everything lived up to the standard Taylor just set, I won’t be disappointed.” Katie Mahree came next. She was visibly nervous. Not having an acoustic electric guitar, she wasn’t able to plug in and play like Taylor did. Instead Stephen Cope, who did an excellent job running sound last night, had to come up to the stage and mic up her guitar. Knowing what it is like to be nervous on stage, having to deal with curveballs like this, and how much nerves can play a part in ruining a performance, I prepared myself for the worst. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how well Katie overcame her nerves as soon as she started singing the first few notes of her song, “The Devil’s in The Water.” And singing should bring her confidence, because her voice is haunting – in a very good way. Nerves still showed a bit, especially in her vibrato, and while the song was simple both rhythmically and harmonically, the melody was great.
In classic singer-songwriter fashion, everyone so far had a little story behind their song. But then came Tate Sexton. He got up on stage, plugged in, put his harmonica around his neck, simply said, “thank you,” into the mic and started picking at his guitar. As much as I love hearing stories and song explanations from musicians, I also love the fact that Tate was not there to talk about himself. He was just there to play music. Unfortunately, his execution wasn’t perfect. His pitch wasn’t perfect, and I felt like his voice didn’t exactly fit his music. He plays with his eyes closed, but not in a way that makes me feel like he entered his own world. Instead it felt as if he were trying to escape ours. He was understandably nervous. The song was great, though. His finger picking style, and the addition of the harmonica was a nice change compared to the first two songwriters.
“I come from a town of 6000,” said James Junius, the next performer. “4000 of which are cattle. 2000 of which are students. This one is called ‘Backlands.'” Immediately I realized that this guy is a great guitarist. He was playing country, but he wasn’t afraid to use some jazz chords. He made the occasional use of purposeful dissonance. Very interesting. Though he was nervous, it was easy to tell that James had some experience being up there and he handled his nerves well. If this were strictly a singing competition, he would have less of a shot compared to Taylor and Katie. He entered the right competition. As a songwriter he does great work.
Chris Hurley was the first to bring emotion to the stage, but certainly not the last. “This song’s called ‘Dreams.’ It’s kind of a depressing one,” he announced before he began. And it was. With lyrics like, “My dreams are breaking up // My seams are breaking out // You say you’re tearing up // but you’re just tearing me down,” and a Dashboard Confessional feel to his song, he was definitely the most emotive of the night. His vocals were great as well, and carried the feeling of the song. Though he was putting himself out there with the nature of the song, he was confident in his delivery. You can tell that he is used to being in the spotlight with his band, Our Future Selves.
Andrew Wiscombe is hard to describe. The juxtaposition of his personality and his emotional delivery are almost hard to grasp. Upon first getting up on stage he made a dig on himself, saying, “And the award for the shortest contestant goes to….” However, ten seconds later, he was talking about being an army sniper for seven years and how, “needless to say that was a horrible experience.” He then sang a song which “chronicles the story of a man who had a similar experience as [his].”
The song, “Holding A Ghost,” was the most cliché country story song about a veteran, but it was executed to perfection to the point where it felt anything but cliché. Lyrics like, “She said it feels like I’m holding a ghost // your mind is in the distance, but your body is the host” beautifully explain how war can change a man, and the effect that can have on his relationships. My one critique of Wiscombe is that his voice feels a bit unnatural, as if he were trying to make it sound more country than it really is.
And so ends the first round. The judges headed on over to the green room to deliberate. In the meantime, I spoke with Taylor and Chris. Talking about his nervousness, or lack thereof, Taylor told me, “I’ve entered enough competitions and lost enough competitions to know that it doesn’t really matter.”
Chris said, “I’m nervous! It’s just the nervousness in the room! […] I kind of hope I don’t get cut first. Anything after first I’m happy with.” Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be his night. To my surprise, Chris was the first one cut. I thought that his honesty and lyrics would definitely be enough to move him forward, but maybe the simplicity of the song betrayed him.
The second round continued with more of the same. After cracking a joke about Chris performing for the first time since having his appendix removed, Taylor announced, “This song is about dealing with depression by running, which I haven’t done very much lately, but I’m trying.”
“Heel and Sole” is a song that he has been playing for a while – one that helped him and his band, Dry Erase Tracks, win a Utah Music Award for Best New Artist. His confident delivery, and clever wordplay like, “And I’ll face my fears and fear my face sometimes […] well who would’ve known the key to break and heal the soul lay in the use of the heel and sole?” left everyone confident that we would hear him again in the next round.
Katie was a little weaker this time around. Her nervousness caused her some problems in figuring out her breathing during some of the more verbose parts of the song, and she found herself out of breath often. Again, a very simple chord progression, and rhythm, but she saved herself with a catchy but intricate melody and interesting lyrics.
Tate’s song, “Anything Helps” was very reminiscent of local folk heroes, The National Parks. With a swing beat and folky strumming, this song sounds like driving through a canyon, or at least it would have with a full band. In my head I could hear quarter notes on a kick drum pushing this song along. Honestly, this song made me more of a Tate Sexton fan than his last round.
James Junius is a fantastic guitarist. The finger picking in his second song was spectacular. He stated before his performance, “The deepest desire of my heart is truly to be Waylon Jennings. I’ve written plenty of bad country songs. This is not one of them.” He was not lying. Wiscombe continued with his signature humor. “I take back my first award for shortest, but how about biggest cry baby?” To which an audience member responded, “How about most left handed?” Witty, funny, a veteran. Honestly, it was hard not to root for this guy. He sang a song about his friend committing suicide with pleading lyrics including, “Show me sunshine through the rain, show me pleasure through the pain.” He is true to his genre, and falls into its stereotypes, but it is hard to care about that when the emotion is so real.
Darcie got up again and announced the end of the second round. Judges left and returned pretty quickly. The room was less tense this time around, as if the shedding of the first blood prepared the crowd for the second. The nature of the Provo music scene shown through as someone took the time to walk across the room and compliment Chris on his songwriting. The judges returned, and Darcie got up again and announced that, unfortunately, Tate Sexton would not be advancing.
At this point most the butterflies were done with. Taylor continued with his confident string of performances as he played “Drifter.” This song is filled with great tempo changes, a Jason Mraz like groove, and a great lines like, “Semi-automatic pilot never got me to my destination,” and “I’ll disengage rather than enrage and that’s how these words landed on this page.”
Before her performance, Katie said, “I think I’m getting the hang of this,” and I think she was right. “Paint” was her best performance of the night for sure. Her lyrics were cryptic. Lines like, “Puppet master, king of every coat, with his paint,” simultaneously made me feel as if she was talking about things too great for my understanding, and talking about nothing at all. It was very interesting.
James was more of the same, namely great guitar playing, interesting chord progressions, and questionable singing. Not bad singing by any means, but just not anything of note. Overall, I was impressed with his songwriting, and that is what this competition is all about.
“Tate is my good buddy,” said Wiscombe. “He even used one of my harmonicas, so we pretty much kissed on the mouth tonight.” More great humor. He then played his least emotional song of the night, “Jingling Jack” – a fictional story Wiscombe wrote about a homeless man he saw while driving around with his kids. “Everyone has a story,” he said. “And I wondered what his was.” It was a story song about a homeless man who plays harmonica and sings, and when the town tries to get rid of him they find a 3 million dollar check that he left behind. The town ends up building a park with the money, as well as a statue of Jingling Jack. The homeless man nobody cares about turns out to be the town hero.
The third round ended, and it was time to wait on the judges again. This was probably the longest deliberation of the night. Andrew Wiscombe was walking around, talking to the other contestants. He came to Chris Hurley and told him, “You have a killer voice, man! And without an appendix! Did that, like, free up more room or something?” It was so great to sit back and watch as competitors reached out to each other and complimented each other. Though it definitely felt like a competition everybody wanted to win, it never felt like they were rivals.
Darcie returned to the stage and announced that Katie Mahree was not moving forward. This was probably the right decision, but a difficult one. Katie writes some great songs. I want to put a band behind her. Selfishly, I hope she keeps at it because I want to keep hearing her music.
This was a very tight round. Everybody definitely saved their best for last. Taylor Woodward started out the round again with a great performance. As he put it, “This is a song about neuroscience and music.” He did an interesting thing where he bookended the song. In the intro he played a laid back guitar part, asking questions and questioning himself. Throughout the song he built up to a much more hectic pace, but by the end he was playing the same as the intro, only with different lyrics. He answered his own questions asked at the beginning of the song. A brilliant piece of songwriting.
If nothing else, James was consistent. It is hard to say anything different about this performance as opposed to his first three. This is not to take away from what it was, or how well he did it. This was by far his best vocal performance, as was shown in the bridge that built up to the highest note he sang all night.
“So I am going to get depressing again,” said the affable Andrew Wiscombe. And he did. His song, “Bones of War” was, again, military themed. He explained that this song was about how he expected to go to war to fight for freedom, and how those expectations were shattered as soon as he got out there. “This is my political rant,” he said. Wiscombe finally decided to let his vocals loose near the end of the song and went up an octave on a motif he sang earlier. This was soul stirring. Nobody in the room moved. His voice sounds way better in that range. I wish he would sing up there more often.
This was going to be a difficult cut to decide. This last round proved that any of these three competitors could easily go on to win the finals. Again, the musicians came around and congratulated each other on a job well done. The judges left and returned within five minutes, and Darcie came back onstage to announce the night’s winners. James Junius and Andrew Wiscombe would be moving on to the finals.
While the first night was filled with twists and turns, night two was full of consistency. Everyone showed who they were in the first round, and continued to show more of the same throughout the night.
Tonight is the Muse Music Songwriter Showdown Finals. Each of the four finalists will perform a 30 minute set. This is a great opportunity to check out some of the best up and coming artists in the area.
Come out to Muse Music on center street tonight at 8PM to see Paul Travis, Mel Soul, Andrew Wisombe, and James Junius perform in the final round. Tickets are $7.