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Holt On: Will Holt brought a Man in Black vibe to the Songwriter Showcase.


Curtis Cartier drops in at the Britannia Arms Songwriters Showcase and finds a few new idols.

By Curtis Cartier

Wannabe Dylans, Lennons, Guthries and Jaggers are all getting their chance behind the microphone again with the return of the Britannia Arms Songwriter Showcase. The 13-week contest pits original musicians against each other for a shot at gift certificates, career consulting and even studio recording time. And after a great turnout last year that saw the emergence of home-grown Americana darling Jay Lingo, organizers are talking up the competition as the best breeding ground in town for budding local talent.

"This contest gives songwriters the perfect opportunity to play in front of an audience of their peers," said contest maestro and Mars Studio owner Ken Capitanich at a preliminary round last week. "Everyone is respectful and professional and just appreciates getting this kind of outlet."

Songwriters are critiqued by a panel of judges who score the musicians on lyrical content, musical content and composition. But before the American Idol jokes start rolling in, it should be known that no score is given for performance skill, so in theory the contest is more guts and less glam. That, however, doesn't mean a little sex appeal won't go a long way. Local keyboardist and last week's eventual winner Nathan Dennen got the crowd hot and bothered with his song "Love in a Bar," which, he said, was based on a scandalous night of flirting at the Red Room in downtown Santa Cruz. "The song is about having a drink in a bar and looking for a girl and about watching all the other people who are doing the same thing," said Dennen, who will join other preliminary round winners in the semifinals in April. "It's kind of ridiculous."

Dennen was the judges' pet, but Mūz had his own favorites. Mike Donaldson, with his soft and sad guitar pickings and classic country-boy drawl, stood out as the clear frontrunner for the night, though he officially took third. Memorable also was the dark, Cash-like rocker Will Holt, whose obvious speech impediment actually lent his music a unique and quirky flavor, as well as a cappella soloist Steve Rieger, who serenaded the audience with throaty ballads both funny and tragic.

The night's contest was emceed by none other than local folk heroine Sherry Austin, who launched her rising musical career when she won the contest three years ago. Austin kept the pace moving and offered constructive tips with more precision than she pronounced tricky last names, but she was still a welcome voice of praise for the nervous performers. "It takes a lot of guts to get up here and do what you do," Austin told the hopeful songwriters, hailing from as far away as Sacramento. "Just getting your songs heard is a big step."

Preliminary rounds continue every Tuesday through April 28 at Britannia Arms, 8017 Soquel Drive, Aptos, with two semifinals and a final round scheduled afterward. Interested musicians should contact Mars Studio at 831.688.8435 or download an entry form at

Jeff Cruse, one of Santa Cruz's premier guitarists, is throwing a benefit concert to raise money for medical bills stemming from a family member's recent heart attack. The show will kick off early at 3pm March 22 at Don Quixote's. Cover is $15; donations are being accepted at [email protected]

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