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Ranking the best, and worst, performers at the Montana Performing Arts Consortium Showcase

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Yesterday I attended the annual Montana Performing Arts Consortium Showcase, which offered a fantastic chance to see a wide array of performers and get a sample for what they’re all about. For free.

One of the performers said it felt a bit like speed dating, and I’d have to agree. The Showcase is set up in a way where the group of performers get 12 minutes to play, introduce themselves to the audience and venue operators and then afterward the artists and the venue folks get a chance to exchange contact information and work out deals for performing later on during the year.

Seeing as there were so many performers and I can’t give a thorough review of each one of them without this becoming a 4,000 word article, I’m going to list my favorite three acts and my least favorite three acts and give reasons why I chose each. Among the top three and the bottom three, I’m not giving them any kind of order, just that they were among the best of the day, or the worst.

I should mention that I didn’t have a chance to see two of the groups, one of which, the Cascade Quartet, I’ve seen quite a few times before. I’ll just say that for those of you reading who may have never read any of my articles before, know that I appreciate and enjoy most all of what the Cascade Quartet does and I’m sure their performance they gave was top notch.

Obviously this list is my opinion, too, and you may disagree. That’s to be expected, and if one of the groups I listed in the bottom three is one of your favorites, know that I respect and enjoyed all of the performers who played yesterday. They all have dedicated themselves to their craft and it showed. There were a few evident reasons why I placed the ones I listed in the bottom three, and some of those reasons could be blamed on less-than optimal conditions they had little control over. Every artist has one of those days, so maybe in a different given circumstance I’d put them in my top three.

With that out of the way, let’s get to my top three favorite performers.

Top Three

1. West My Friend 

This group from Victoria, British Columbia up in Canada had a tight sound from start to finish. Self-described as “Cascadian third-wave indie progressive chamber folk-roots” these guys gelled well together on stage and played a collection of all original songs that had an identifiable energy that spoke to me, and without assuming too much about my readers, I’m willing to say that it would speak to you, also, if you heard them. (Maybe you did also hear them, if so, I’d love to hear your comments below!) Coincidentally, during lunch I had the good fortune to sit next to West My Friend’s lead singer, Eden Oliver. During our meal we spoke a bit about their touring schedule, performing on stage vs. the studio, and how they all met one another.

What impressed me about them, as well, was that Ms. Oliver stated that she used to be a school teacher before becoming a touring musician. She felt that that life experience has translated well to school activities, which I get the feeling nearly all of these performers will be asked to do at nearly each stop with the Montana Performing Arts Consortium communities.

Overall, their sound struck me in such a way, in fact, that I may look at reviewing their latest album, because I know I haven’t described their sound too much yet, either. The first comparison that hit me while hearing them was the same styling of the Avett Brothers. Or, maybe, The Decemberists. Personally I do hope that they get chosen by one of the area venues because I’d very much enjoy hearing them!

2.   Twin Kennedy

This twin-sister duo from Powell River, British Columbia, brought an excitement to the crowd from the start and never let that go. Bruce Springsteen once said that your goal as a musician is to grab your audience by the neck and keep it firmly in your grasp until you’re finished playing. Twin Kennedy did just that.

They started out with a bang-up cover of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and shifted gears into a slow ballad and finished things of with an instrumental mixture of classical and country music.

In introducing themselves, Carli and Julie, Carli joked, “to tell us apart just remember Guitarli and Fiddulie. We’ll be wearing these instruments the rest of the day, too.”

In my estimation, nothing beats a hot fiddle accompanied by a superb guitar. These two had the skill, the charm, the energy and the look to entertain just about anybody. They’ve also won their share of musical awards, including one for their latest single “Secondhand Gold” which was the Grand Prize Award winner in the Country category of the 2015 John Lennon Songwriting Contest and the 2016 Lennon Award winner for Best Country Song.

They’re in tune with one another in a way perhaps only twin sisters can be. On their official bio it states, “Everything starts as a duo. We write together, rehearse together, live together, hang out together, tour together. So much togetherness!” And together, these sisters have commanded some of the top stages in Canada and beyond including performances at Canadian Music Week, Canada Place, Sunfest, Rockin’ River Music Festival, Vancouver Island Exhibition, the Vancouver Olympics, and the Live at Heart Festival in Sweden.”

Whoever books these performers will surely get a large lively, interested crowd before, and after, seeing them!

Beyond those two is where things get interesting. Choosing my third favorite group, who, again, isn’t any worse or better than any of my other favorites, has been tough. Jack Gladstone always puts on a fantastic show and he’s called “Montana’s Troubadour” for a good reason. He’s an award-winning, experienced, well-known and much beloved artist.

That being said, those were things I knew about him before going to the showcase. He also, which was not his fault, nor was it anyone else’s, was one of the three artists who played “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. He had the good fortune of being the first to perform it, but still, that in a way symbolizes why I’m hesitant to put him in my top three favorite performers. We expected him to be incredible, and he was. When you hear Hallelujah, you know what to expect as soon as the first notes are played, unless maybe your name was Jeff Buckley. But, getting back to Gladstone, I thought he played a solid set, and everyone knew what he was capable of after hearing him. Plus, let’s be honest here, he’s going to be just fine whether I put him on my list or not!

So, my third favorite act of the day was….drumroll….

3. James Lee Stanley 

Stanley, who on his official bio states he has been a musician since the ripe age of 14, has also been described as, “the last great undiscovered singer-songwriter in America” by Mr. Tom Robbins in the Village Voice.

Stanley’s a singer/songwriter who has that power to make you feel warm feelings when he pulls that string, can make you feel sad when he pulls those strings and can make you feel just about anything else that he feels like with what seems like no effort at all. The truth is, though, that he has honed that magic from spending a lifetime working as a professional creative human being.

He’s also well renowned —  such diverse acts as Bonnie Raitt, Robin Williams, Nicolette Larson, Bill Cosby and Steven Wright have all had Stanley open for them over the years.

A true musicians’ musician, I look forward to the possibility of hearing him play a full show in a neighborhood near us!
With that let’s get to the bottom three. I’ll mention again that these artists have my respect and appreciation that they chose to come to Great Falls for a chance to perform across Northcentral Montana. For whatever reason, though, it wasn’t quite working for me as much as the others.

Bottom Three

1. Take Five Jazz Quintet

Now, I’m going to tread lightly here because I know this group has performed for the MPAC pretty frequently, but, in my mind, yesterday that was about the only real strong message they conveyed. If all you’ve got is “we’ve done this before, choose us again,” then that’s not enough for me.

The Take Five Jazz Quintet from Boise, Idaho.
The Take Five Jazz Quintet from Boise, Idaho.

Don’t get me wrong, I think they were decent, but one thing hurting them was that their sound levels were off, meaning the instruments were conflicting more with one another than not, and their rendition of Etta James’ “At Last” felt more derivative than I feel a good cover should.

I also wasn’t impressed with their decision to bring up 50 elementary school children on stage, who had with them paper mache instruments they held while the group played.

That’s not going to be a popular opinion, I know, and for those kids along with the parents and teachers of those children, they likely see it as having the chance to stand on stage at the Mansfield Center with a real band, which can be life changing. I don’t doubt that, but I do somewhat question their motive for choosing to bring those kids on stage.  The kids did great, don’t get me wrong and I wouldn’t think of going after them for anything.

However, be that as it may, their bringing them on stage only drove home the point that they were really trying to show as “see, we’ve done this before, we know these kids, we can do this again, remember?” other than “We’re a talented band with a musical capability to draw an audience with our sound, our personalities and our knowledge.”

That reason, along with the fact that compared to other acts that day I felt were better, led to my decision to place them in my bottom three. Beyond just that, they’re already performing with the MPAC this year. It’d make sense to let someone else do it next year.

2. East-West International Project

The East-West International Project had the opposite problem yesterday. Their music sounded great, but they had trouble connecting with the audience. They came on stage and started playing and dancing. Their crowd skills weren’t there, but that normally doesn’t have to matter. Bob Dylan, for instance, can show up, play his music and spit on the crowd or swear profusely at them, and he’d still be able to sell out the venue and get a standing ovation because of his music is wonderful. Even if it’s not, he’s Bob Fucking Dylan. I’ve been told his performance quality has started to slip in his late age, but, still, that doesn’t matter for most people.

An extreme example, perhaps, but in a showcase like this one yesterday, you are not only being judged based on your music, but other harder-to-define qualities.

Watching these guys to me felt like how I would feel if I was holding a delicate sculpture in my hands.

I appreciate its beauty, but there is a level of separation. With the sculpture, I’d be afraid of dropping it, which would take away from my ability to fully enjoy the art. With the East-West International Project, that separation was created due to a certain, very slight, mind you, uncomfortable-ness I picked up in a few of them. They’re one of those acts that I feel like in a different situation I’d find them to be exquisite. Sometimes that’s how it goes! Their story is pretty interesting, too, actually, and of the three on this bottom list, they were the one I was most hesitant to place here.

3.   Jason Ringenberg

Ringenberg describes his music in an interesting way — he calls himself, “The Original Roots Punk Barnstormer.” That leaves you wondering what exactly that sounds like. Unfortunately yesterday, he had some technical issues that kept him from fully exhibiting that in a way he could have.

Not only that, but, in a way his style just didn’t speak to me like some of the others did. If you can imagine the guy who pounds his chest and exclaims he’s “Proud to be an American” every chance he gets, you’ll sort of get the picture of what kind of fellow he sold himself as yesterday. Being in Montana, I understand how there’s a lot of people that can appeal to, but for me — it’s not really my bag.

That’s a bit too simplistic, I realize, but nonetheless, even if you were into that kind of performer, his mic setup was off so it sounded rough no matter what kind of music you’re into.

To his credit, he thanked the sound people for doing a fine job, even if he knew it wasn’t working the way it should. I’m not going to step in and place blame on anyone’s feet, either.

That’s not the point, though. The point is that when you’re fighting for a chance to book a set of shows, you need everything to work its best, and, for whatever reason, Ringenberg didn’t have that on this particular day. Reading his bio, he’s been widely recognized for his work as a solo artist and as a member of Jason and the Scorchers.

“In 2008 (Jason and the Scorchers) were awarded the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. There also is an exhibit of them in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” it reads.

I’d be willing to give him another chance to work out the sound issues, and showcase some more of his music, if he ever got that chance again. Maybe we’ll see him come back to the MPAC Showcase in future years.

 

In conclusion,  I feel fortunate that we still have this marvelous event that happens every year in our little ole’ corner of the world. Music, art and performing are crucial aspects to any civilization and any organization that provides it to communities that might not otherwise have it should be celebrated non-stop. I thank all of the organizers, performers, back-stage workers, sound technicians, caterers, and anyone else I forgot for helping put this on in Great Falls again this year. I look forward to see who’s chosen and hearing and/or seeing their talents again up-close together with a few thousand of my best friends!

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