Eddie's Attic, Dec. 14 -- Halfway through the 17th Semi-Annual Open Mic Shootout, club owner Todd Van Sickle had a special message for all the entertainers in the competition. "This night is about having fun, musicians meeting musicians, and everyone hearing those musicians," he said, looking directly into a camera broadcasting the event to the musicians gathered in the adjoining poolroom. "It's not about the prize money and the recording time; it's all about the music."
The showcase, Van Sickle's two "funnest nights of the year" at the club, is a sort of Holy Grail for acoustic singer/songwriters. The victor of the event nets $1,000 cash, two days' recording time at Zero Return Studios and, most importantly, prime bookings at the venue. But the biggest winner is the audience. For a $10 cover, music lovers get a liberal sampling of some of the best players around, culled from six months' worth of open-mic nights at the club. Last Saturday, the crowd in the sold-out listening room sat in hushed silence as a parade of 27 performers vied for the chance to advance.
Each round of the Shootout is a simple head-to-head contest. After two acts play, a panel of judges has the unenviable task of quickly deciding which one is better. Eight assorted music industry characters (including this writer) had the toughest job of the night. Each artist is judged on the quality of songwriting, playing ability, vocal performance, stage presence and the most arbitrary criteria of all: the reaction and response of the judges and audience.
The running order of the show -- decided by lottery -- is often a wild whirl of contrasts, and the delicious counterpoints make the evening interesting but also quite stressful for the judges. Daemon Records popster Paul Melancon, an already successful touring act, appeared fairly early in the proceedings. At a brief soundcheck, when the artist sang a bit of Squeeze's "Tempted" in his angelic voice, the crowd wanted more. Yet, in spite of a winning reading of "Hey, California" from his Camera Obscura album, most of the judges voted for his opponent, Rachel Davis.
Bostonian Davis, a healthier, folkier version of Juliana Hatfield, advanced to the next round and won again, though she ruffled the feathers of the judging panel by performing a cover song. A couple of astute judges pointed out this infraction of the rules. Armed with the knowledge that she hadn't performed her own composition, Shootout officials called a recount. Yet the sweetly personable Davis won again.
But Davis' run ended soon after. The next round found her playing opposite former Shootout winner Bain Mattox of Athens, the first act of the night to get a thunderous ovation just for walking on stage. Accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Count Kellam, Mattox easily advanced, performing the title track to his solo debut, Technicolor Episode.
As the evening wore on, the final four acts were in place: Mattox, Greg Klyma, Johnny Roquemore and Paul Sprawl. New Yorker Klyma was a funny and endearing blend of Peter Holsapple of the dB's and the Monkees' Peter Tork. Atlantan Roquemore, armed with the biting wit of Tom Lehrer and the appearance of a deranged backwoods Santa Claus, was the only act to touch on anything remotely reflecting current political events. His hilarious ditty urged the U.S. government to attack Saddam Hussein with greasy "bacon bombs." Californian Sprawl is a unique and inherently soulful singer/ guitarist who uses lightning-fast hammer-offs to achieve a percussive sound.
Mattox and Klyma -- both excellent songwriters -- were eliminated in favor of the amusing and hypnotic. At nearly 1:30 a.m., Roquemore and Sprawl were the last men standing. Roquemore's affable humor and Sprawl's excellent musicianship evenly split the panel of judges, leaving the final decision for Van Sickle to decide. Roquemore was warmly thanked and applauded, and Sprawl was declared the winner.
Saturday's Shootout marked the second hosting gig for Van Sickle, the club's new owner, who seemed to be embracing his role as he tossed out irreverent Christmas trivia and ribald jokes between Shootout acts.
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