Clearly, a fraud was perpetrated last night at the Vita.mn Are You Local? showcase at the Varsity Theater. If the purpose of the event is to turn new local acts into rock stars, then the4onthefloor should have been eliminated the moment frontman Gabriel Douglas stepped off of the stage and stepped into the crowd mid-song, with his guitar in hand and a microphone stand waiting for him there. Such a cocky move could only be pulled off by someone who’s already a rock star. Douglas continued to play with an unfair advantage until the set’s end. He completed the quartet’s gritty hard-rawwker “Junkie” at ground level and then went straight into the boozy anthem “On Tuesdays,” with his beer-stein raised alongside all the audience’s cups and cans. Beer steins … extra bass drums … crowd-pleasing drinking songs … these guys should’ve been disqualified on so many levels.
Wouldn’t you know it, though, the 4onthefloor topped the competition. Douglas & Co. won a slot at Vita.mn’s day party during the South by Southwest Music Conference in two weeks, which will also feature last night’s non-competing performers: Ben Weaver, Phantom Tails and Jeremy Messersmith.
Because his songs don’t really mesh with gabby, full-capacity crowds (read: their quality demands you actually listen), Weaver kicked off the Varsity show the way a good chef might kick off a meal with a tastebud-arousing amuse-bouche. Songs such as the banjo-plucked “City Girl” and “While I’m Gone” – from the mesmerizing new Bloodshot release “Mirepoix & Smoke” – lingered with extra, almost haunting aura in the big room.
Sandwiched between Weaver and Phantom Tails were the three Are You Local? finalists, starting with newly transplanted Chicago rapper Longshot. This guy’s bound to make a big impact in a scene that arguably is short on MCs writing effective sociopolitical, revolution-centric tunes (file him next to I Self Devine and Toki Wright, in other words). Rhyming about injustices in the justice system, his lines included, “Freedom ain’t free / It cost a pretty penny” – one of several times he went a cappella in his set. His one shortcoming was actually his backing music, which sometimes lacked the equivalent oomph of his lyrics (and might simply be blamed on a weak sound system/mix; Phantom Tails’ acidic, Reznorized electro-rock set also sounded a bit muted). Pictures of Then proved themselves worthy competitors, too, by stretching out a couple of their jagged, radio-friendly pop-punk songs (including “When It Stings”) into lengthier, angular jams that showed these guys are no newbies at playing clubs.
Messersmith’s headlining set demonstrated that he’s pretty well ready to compete on a whole other level. With Rogue Valley’s Peter Sieve capably filling in for Brian Tighe on guitar (an arrangement that will last through Jeremy’s vigorous SXSW run this year), the bespectacled boy wonder delivered something of a greatest-hits set, starting with his first local radio staple “Novocaine” on through “Violet,” “A Girl, a Boy & a Graveyard” and “Light Rail.” He also threw in the recent online hit “Tatooine,” which prompted him to say of “Star Wars” fandom, “Sure, it’s fast-food culture, but it’s our culture.” Don't worry, Jeremy: Sort of like a steady girlfriend who discovers you're not as cool as you were those first few dates, we like you too much now to care about whatever geekiness you might display.