It was standing-room only at the Muddy Waters Coffee Bar in West Ashley for Wednesday evening's at Palmetto Acoustic's Open Mic Acoustic Challenge (Sept. 16). The fifth installment in a seven-part monthly series drew 14 songwriters of various musical styles and instrumental skills, and well over 100 respectful and attentive attendees.
I got to sit up front during the whole thing as one of three judges, alongside regular host and judge Aaron Levy (of local band White Rhino) and musician and educator Stan Gray (of local band The BBQ Bros.). Our assignment was to carefully evaluate and score the sets on five criteria: songwriting, vocal performance, playing ability, stage presence, and audience response. The top three performers of the 14 will get an encore set at the end of the night to determine the winner.
Here are some excerpts from notes I took during each mini-set.
• Opener Brad Willis carefully strummed and sang two straightahead, four-chord-style ballads (one love song, and one honoring his father).
• In a low-key, Kimya Dawson style, Rosanna Mae Hendrix sat down as she played guitar (and a little harmonica) on two simple, slow-tapping originals —one of which she "wrote when I was mad."
• Bespectacled Will Pittman came on strong and confident as he picked and belted it out on two melodic tunes — one about a girl with a "mock British accent that makes me believe her."
• In a more modern-rock style, Matt Fahey attempted two mini-anthems ("songs with no names"). He stumbled slightly on the second tune, but, with encouragement from the crowd, he quickly recovered, earning strong applause.
• Tall-standing, curly-haired songstress Irene Rose performed some of the most cheerful music of the evening, including a cute and colorful ode to the vibes and landmarks of the Lowcountry ("salty and humid/that's the we do it!").
• With accompaniment from a guitarist and mandolinist, young singer Mary Gilmore mixed things up with an upbeat song titled "Queen for a Day," backed by a much heavier, harmony-heavy anthem called "War Paint."
• Tall, thin, Fedora-wearin' songsmith, lefty guitarist and poet Jim Lundy (a host at the East Bay Meeting House open mic/spoken-word events) cracked us up with a song about a happy exit from a crummy relationship ("I'm Gone") and a bizarre supper with a wealthy mad man ("Howard Hughes Came to Dinner").
• The animated strummer Chuck Taylor didn't wear his namesake Converse sneakers, but he induced much howlin' and laughter with the "unedited" version of his crack-fired song "Crazy Town" ("Crazy Town, that's a fucked up place/Crazy Town, you're on a wild goose chase").
• Up-and-coming acoustic duo Becca Bessinger and Daniel Crawford sang beautifully together (she took the low notes, and he took the high) on fairly melancholic songs.
• Taking a Celtic detour, songwriter Jimmy McElligot used a slight Irish brogue, a rich vibrato, and gradual but effective crescendos on two tavern-ready ditties.
• Just in town from Boulder, Colo., singer/pianist Kara Hesse swept the room with her knock-out voice (think Maria meets Tori on a Carole King classic), emotive singing style, and flawless piano work. Her impressive range, trills, and melodic embellishments were among the highlights of the evening.
• Deep-voiced John Brackett showed some mighty fine country singin' chops on his two numbers. "Here's a song that took me 20 years to write one night," he quipped of the second tune.
• Longhaired, cowboy-hatted crooner Terry Harder strummed quietly during his slows swingin' love songs — old-style tunes that sounded very Elvis-esque.
• Justin Carlson closed the night the a very strange, Turkish-themed power ballad — replete with very pronounced, operatic vibrato — and a more straightforward follow-up that veered into morose love song territory.
The top three finalists — Jim Lundy, Chuck Taylor, and Kara Hesse — scored very high and very closely together. After a quick round in which they each played on more song, Hesse won the top spot as well as a cash prize of $140 collected from donation at the door and in the "cornucopia tip jar" that was passed around.
The next installment of the Open Mic Acoustic Challenge is set for Wed. Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. Performers interested in competing should visit www.myspace.com/palmettoacoustic for more info on signing up.