Last year, Vita.mn's first-ever Are You Local? South by Southwest Send-Off Party was merely a quaint "ta-ta!" to some of the choice Twin Cities bands representing our fair metro at the massive music conference/festival in Austin, Texas. There were hot dogs.

For this year's Are You Local? concert Saturday at First Avenue, we'll once again wish good luck to several acts making the trek to SXSW -- Lookbook, Peter Wolf Crier , Jeremy Messersmith, the Pines, Romantica and City on the Make. There will be doughnuts.

Then on March 18, several of the above bands (plus Solid Gold, We Became Actors and Gigamesh) will appear at our "Minnesota Music" showcase at the esteemed Maggie Mae's in downtown Austin to flash their collective Minnesotan chops.

There's another twist this Saturday: The three finalists in our first-ever Are You Local? best-new-band contest will compete for a slot in our SXSW showcase -- plus travel costs, some free studio time and other band-friendly prizes. Bight Club, Hunting Club and Joey Ryan & the Inks duked it out with 183 other bands to become the final three. Who'll score the knockout punch and travel to Austin to rock and network? Meet the bands here, and come to the show on Saturday to find out.

Bight Club

Bight Club
Photo by Carlos Gonzalez

MC Jeremy Nutzman and beatsmith Tony Rabiola don't toy with subtlety. Instead, their hip-hop duo Bight Club gnashes its electric teeth and digs in with Nutzman's André 3000-channeled flow. The result is a high-energy product that diverges from all other Twin Cities hip-hop sects. It manages an amalgamation of old (funk), recent (Outkast's "ATLiens") and a glaring newness. That is to say, it's so far from boring.

Nutzman first heard Rabiola at the ill-fated Uptown Bar last May, when Rabiola was performing live dubstep with a friend. The guys felt some chemistry, and after some MySpace tag, headed to a studio in Cambridge, Minn., and churned out a lofty 30-some tracks. That total was whittled to six for Bight Club's debut EP, "Sweat," released in January.

The LP is impressively polished, but its brevity (14 minutes) begs for more. On "Sweat," Rabiola, just a baby at 19, sounds as practiced as an Ant (Atmosphere) or a Lazerbeak (Doomtree). And where has Nutzman, 24, been hiding? He toys with verses like they're yarn and he's a cocky-ass cat, bouncing bars with unusual charisma for a greenhorn. Aside from touting only 14 minutes of music, these dudes look like stars. Long hair abounds, hipster style points mount, and a general sense of being effortlessly comfortable make Bight Club a duo dangerously armed with substance and style.

Q: Describe your sound to a stranger.

Nutzman: The music bucks.

Q: How do you stand out from the droves of other local hip-hop acts?

Nutzman: We don't do hip-hop; we do parties. It's everything. You're gonna get house in there, you're gonna get funk, you're gonna get old-school. There's even some dubplates sprinkled in there for the bassheads.

Q: What would you say in a speech if you win Are You Local?

Nutzman: I would say thanks to myself and Tony Tone [Rabiola] for being dope. Thanks to pops for throwin' down a little sprinkle. Other than that, anyone who's ever lent me money, that's tight, too; I probably still owe some.

Q: Plans for the future?

Nutzman: To stay playing shows and stay making shit constantly; we're on the grind. Creative flow, always. Stream of consciousness, makin' shit. All the time.

Hunting Club

Hunting Club
Photo by Tom Wallace

Pop quiz: Is Craiglist good for anything other than used Ikea tables and anonymous sex? Answer: Yes, it can also yield one helluva frontman. Such is the case with Hunting Club. Founded by brothers Kyle and Justin Steen and rounded out by pals Nate Dykstra and Bob Dubois, one obvious element was amiss: a singer. Before Justin could even mount a proper search, he stumbled upon Eric Pasi's ad that boasted the exact influences he fancied (Elliott Smith, T-Rex, the Replacements). One EP -- 2008's "Pretty/Ugly" -- and a forthcoming LP later, the world has Hunting Club.

Musically, Hunting Club is a dense affair. The rhythm section trudges like a pack mule while Dubois' and Justin Steen's dueling guitars riff and swirl above the mix. It's a largely guitar-driven sound that lays a perfect nest for Pasi's high, clear indie-vocals-by-numbers delivery. They'd be hard-pressed to admit it, but there's almost a mid-'90s, early emo (before that was a filthy word, mind you) vibe to the songs -- either a less-pained Sunny Day Real Estate or an early, tighter Promise Ring.

Regardless, Hunting Club fills a current hole in the local scene: a good, fully realized, American-sounding alternative rock band. Sure, there are plenty of punkish bands with hooks (Private Dancer, the Guystorm) and Euro-sounding acts (the Idle Hands, Two Harbors), but they're rooted elsewhere. Hunting Club sounds as if it was born of American soil; it's best to leave Britpop to the Brits. A clearly forged identity tills fertile ground and cultivates much promise for this assemblage of promising rockers.

Q: Describe your sound to a stranger.

Justin Steen: I think fairly layered. To some degree it's sort of orchestrated pop music.

Q: On the band's Facebook page, the band's interests are "gun shows, jerky, mounting things, pheasants forever" -- which is most important to the band's sound?

Steen: You're really setting me up to say "mounting things" for that. ... The irony of that is no one in our group hunts at all.

Q: What would you say in a speech if you win?

Steen: We wouldn't know what to say.

Q: Plans for the future?

Steen: About the only thing you can control in music is the quality you put out. All of us have a standard in mind of the sort of music we'd like to put out, and hopefully with everything we do we get a little closer to that -- to make something that's of some significance.

Joey Ryan & the Inks

Joey Ryan & the Inks
Photo by Carlos Gonzalez

A lot of bands are takers. They beat you over the head with artiness, nuance and general riffraff, and only then does the listener get something back. Joey Ryan & the Inks are givers. The band's lust for '60s pop, abundance of melodies and penchant for hooks reward without asking for anything more than a pair of ears and a pulse. At the end of an eight-hour workday, do you really want to tensely listen to Grizzly Bear's latest, trying to crack its weighty, cognitive shell? Or do you want Joey Ryan's skillful power-pop to serve as sweet, accessible candy?

That's not to say that singer/guitarist Ryan and his Inks (guitarist Chris Mitchell, bassist Matt Mitchell, keyboardist Tim Dickson and drummer Ryan Mach) are mindless clods with cheap hooks. No, the players involved are music-scene vets, having bided time in the Alarmists, the Exchange and the Flin Flon Bombers, to name a few. Formed a year and a half ago, the group coalesced around a love for mid-century staples the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys and yes, the Beatles. Those primary sources, along with plenty of harmonizing and even some doo-wop, are evident on the group's understatedly titled 2009 LP, "Well, Here We Are Then" -- a solid 10-song debut.

The Inks' coupling of musical proficiency and stellar influences -- combined with Ryan's knack for vocal hooks and solid lyricism -- creates not just ear candy, but ear candy with some cachet. Will they be the next Tapes 'N Tapes or Motion City Soundtrack, propelled into the national limelight? Probably not. But they're still a damn fine pop band, and there's no such thing as a surplus of those.

Q: Describe your sound to a stranger.

Chris Mitchell: My friend called it "crooner rock."

Tim Dickson: If Liverpool was warm.

Joey Ryan: I usually say average at best.

Q: Joey, you're a basketball coach. If the band's sound were a player -- past or present -- who would it be?

Mitchell: [John] Stockton? We get around pretty quick, a little short, a lot of assists.

Ryan: We'd be Kareem -- 'cause we have lots of hooks.

Q: What would you say in a speech if you win?

Mitchell: In general, we're pretty self-deprecating. It'd be pretty ironic, I imagine.

Q: Plans for the future?

Ryan: Keep doin' what we're doin'. Part of the appeal of this band has been not thinking too much about things. Things seem to be going pretty well so far taking that approach. Ride that wave.