Joys in the Attic 

Jennifer Daniels wins intense Open Mic Shoot-Out

Eddie's Attic, Nov. 24 -- At the midpoint during the four hours of Open Mic Shoot-Out XIII, clubowner Eddie Owen stepped up to the Attic's stage and made a surprise, tongue-in-cheek announcement. "The waitresses will be coming around," he told the packed house, "and collecting another $12 from each of you, because we think this show's now worth at least $20."

Owen was only joking about the surcharge, but the variety of talent on display throughout the evening certainly merited more than the nominal $8 admission. Twenty winners from the previous six months of weekly open-mic events had assembled to compete one-on-one for a $1000 prize, with a panel of judges (including myself) evaluating each performer on songwriting, playing, vocal performance, stage presence and crowd response. The event ran till just past midnight, when Chattanooga-based singer/songwriter Jennifer Daniels emerged from a field of exceptionally strong semi-finalists to win the concluding round.

The Shoot-Out had started promisingly at 8 p.m. with a clever song by Andrew Kerr, who traveled all the way from Chicago to participate. A sing-a-long about Kerr's dream of becoming a white rap star, the number included hilarious chouses of "I love you Special K!" and it ran daringly against the Attic's long-ensconced folkie vibe. A little too daringly, in fact, as Kerr was immediately defeated.

Other contenders who vanished quickly included New Jersey duo Russell Wolf, who declared, "After the 16-hour drive to get down here, we're gonna play a song about bein' on the road," (which was, as it happened, the only song they got to play) and Chattanooga-based Ryan Long, whose long-winded introduction suggested he'd mistaken the Attic for "VH1 Storytellers." Zac Brown of Dahlonega had so much trouble staying on key that his song's title, "Maybe It's Time to Let Go," proved instantly prophetic.

Among stronger contenders emerging in the second round was Daniel Lee of Baton Rouge, who had impressive Prince-like looks and mannerisms. Armed with a considerable repertoire of tricks for wringing extra sounds out of his acoustic guitar, Lee even ended a tune with an impressive descending arpeggio which he played one-handed. Defeating Lee by a single vote was graying, gruff-voiced Nashville songsmith Bill Boutwell, whose beautifully rendered, unpretentious songs such as "If Dreams Were Gasoline" and "I Want to Be the Last Thing on Your Mind" rose above the potential hokum their titles suggested. Boutwell lost his own bid for the finals by one vote to Claire Holley and Rob Seals from Jackson, Miss., whose upbeat folk sound alternately evoked Maria McKee and Suzanne Vega.

The only semi-finalist who seemed out of place was Boston troubadour Christopher Williams. Wearing a ridiculous blue beret, Williams delivered his tortuously overwrought material like a second-class Shawn Mullins-wannabe, squinting intently at the neck of his guitar as if lyrics were inscribed on the fret dots. By luck of the draw he managed to squeak through three rounds until Jennifer Daniels ultimately defeated him.

For this accomplishment alone Daniels deserved top honors, but her clear superiority in every ranked category -- particularly vocal performance -- were what cinched the glory for her. Whether throwing back her head to hold a magnificently sustained high note or expertly accompanying herself on a 12-string guitar, Daniels outclassed the strongest competition. Facing considerable challenge from Holley and Seals in the final round, she brought her husband onstage to add mandolin during her last number, "Good Day to Live." That title became a self-fulfilling prophecy when Daniels -- a veteran of five previous Shoot-outs but never a winner before -- went home $1000 richer.

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