A smooth jazz and soul bandleader, a genre-busting singer, an eclectic blues band, a young heavy band coming into its own, a quirky singer-songwriter, and two hip-hop Dons: On Friday, November 5th, at Beale Street's New Daisy Theatre, these seven musical acts from three cities will compete before a panel of music-industry pros for prize packages totaling $10,000.
Sponsored by the Memphis-based regional chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, this second Mid-South Grammy Showcase hopes to launch a rising star, and the event's track record has been pretty good.
Last year's top three finishers, all Memphis acts, were hip-hop/soul/rock hybrid Free Sol, whose debut album recently got national distribution; neo-soul singer Valencia Robinson, who has since relocated to New York in pursuit of a musical career; and rock band Retrospect, who have recently been in Ardent Studios putting the finishing touches on a new album. But the history of the event runs further back, based on a defunct national Grammy showcase series last held in the late '90s. That series helped to launch the careers of Saliva and the North Mississippi Allstars, arguably the two biggest acts to emerge from Memphis this decade.
"Our headquarters has been discussing reviving the national Grammy showcase, and our office decided to go ahead and be the pilot for getting it started again," says the local recording academy's Katherine Sage of the decision to restart a regional version of the former national series. "The event was such a success last year, and Free Sol has had so much success, that we're going to continue to do this until the national headquarters decides whether to make this a national program."
Unsigned acts from St. Louis to New Orleans were eligible for the competition. The local Grammy office received about 300 demo submissions, Sage says. Memphis acts dominated but there was also response from the St. Louis area.
The initial submissions were culled through judging by genre specialists.
"We took the demos that were submitted to us and divided them into genres, and then we had people who work in the industry in those respective genres -- producers, engineers, writers, etc. -- come in and hook into a listening station and evaluate all the demos in their genre of specialty," Sage says.
Each judge submitted a list of five favorites from their genre. A single vote from any judge qualified an act for the semifinal round, where roughly 50 demos were screened by a new panel of judges. Demos were evaluated using three criteria: quality of performance, originality, and quality of song.
Of the seven finalists who will compete Friday night, five are from Memphis. Rock is represented by the Carlos Ecos Band and Crippled Nation. The Ecos Band unites Beale Street blues and roots-rock with personal touches, such as salsa accents that can make the band sound like a long-awaited follow-up to the Santana sound. New Daisy regulars Crippled Nation seem to be outgrowing their nü-metal roots, evolving the youthful aggression into more grown-up dimensions.
Two other Memphis acts represent hip-hop and soul. Don Tripp offers a flow and musical style in a more low-key way than the Memphis rap norm, while bandleader Will Graves is a local go-to guy on the growing neo-soul scene.
And then there's Candice Ivory, the hard-to-pigeonhole young singer whose debut album Path -- Undefined, released early this year, melded vocal jazz and neo-soul with some rock and hip-hop elements. Judging from "New Shoes," the new recording featured on the showcase's CD sampler, Ivory continues to experiment. "New Shoes" is positively new wave, like something Blondie and Prince might have collaborated on back around 1980.
The two other competitors hail from Missouri, and though Memphis acts swept this showcase a year ago, the songs featured from our northern neighbors on the CD sampler suggest that the outcome could be different this time around. St. Louis' Andy Conrad is an alt-pop singer-songwriter with a country tinge. His song "Artificial Junk" evokes Wilco and Pete Yorn. And then there's Kansas City rapper Don Juan, whose "Looks So Fly" doesn't do much lyrically, but the song's vocal flow and head-bobbing beat are ready for MTV right now.
Among the local acts that made the competition's semifinal round were Bella Sun, Beanpole, Clanky's Nub, Iron Mic Coalition, Deep Shag, Yamagata, Mrs. Fletcher, Tunnel Clones, and Men-Nefer.
The showcase finals will be judged by a panel of industry insiders, including A&R representatives from major labels Def Jam, Columbia, and Universal. The grand-prize winner will receive a paid performance slot at the 2005 Beale Street Music Festival as well as a development package that includes two days of studio time at Young Avenue Sound, two months rehearsal space at Strings & Things, mastering at Taproot Audio Design, a CD manufacturing package from Audiographic Masterworks, photography by Shane Carr Photography, and a band bio and liner notes from Phillips Entertainment. The showcase is set to begin at 7 p.m., with each act performing a 15-minute set. The cover charge is $10.