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Garrett Wheeler oohs and aahs at the grand finale of Britannia Arms' Songwriter Showcase

By Garrett Wheeler

Judging a song is like placing an order at Marianne's: everything's good, but only one can be the winner. How would I know? Because I got to judge the final round of this year's Britannia Arms Songwriters Showcase. Walking into Aptos' favorite British pub, I was greeted by Songwriter Showcase founder Ken Capitanich, who casually informed me that I would be judging tonight's showdown, along with Metro Santa Cruz literary hero Paul Wagner. Why me, you might ask? I was a little skeptical myself. Sure, I write about music, and I might even know a thing or two about songwriting, but compared to Mr. Wagner--who works as a recording artist and "musical consultant" in between writing gigs--I'm like the Elmer Fudd of the music world. After a charming number by Ukulele Dick (a.k.a. Rick McKee) and Jayme Kelly Curtis, the showcase kicked off with Mike Mattingly. Mattingly's website calls his music "Hillbilly Hawaiian," a fitting description for the laid-back tunes the local rocker brought to the showcase. The next performer, Steve Hohstadt, exhibited an entirely different flavor with his country-folk leanings, impressing at least one judge with a haunting tale of a war veteran's tortured soul. "So here I am on this street, fighting demons I can't defeat," crooned Hohstadt. "It may seem that I am weak, but it's forgiveness that I seek." Now that's songwriting anyone can appreciate.

Third on the roster was local up-and-comer Amanda West, whose beautifully polished voice delivered two drastically different songs, each one containing the fluttering brilliance of West's songwriting. Her "Illuminate My Soul" was dazzling enough to illuminate everyone else's as well. West's eventual second-place finish indeed struck a high note. Elizabeth Jonasson, whose keyboard-accompanied melodies had a particularly forlorn vibe, followed West. The two are no strangers to sharing stage time; they often play shows together around town. They play Oakland's Nomad Café on May 30. Jim Joseph provided the night's comic relief with his dry wit and slightly perplexing jazz ditties. Joseph wasn't the only performer out for a few laughs, as (outlaw) country-rocker Steve Griswold proved with his rollicking "Cocaine and Beer." In between Joseph and Griswold was showcase winner Matt Valesquez. No more than 30 seconds into his first song, it was clear he possesses the Almighty Gift of Song: perfect pitch, natural songwriting ability and excellent guitar playing led the judges to crown him champ without hesitation. His voice was reminiscent of Eagles frontman Don Henley, but his music had little in common with the classic rock mainstay, instead resembling something between Jack Johnson's mellow rock and the neofolk of Brett Dennen. Expect to hear more from Velasquez in the future.

The night ended with a couple acoustic folk numbers from Carmel's Stephen Mortenson before a wrap-up starring, once again, Ukulele Dick and Jayme Kelly Curtis. The votes came in, the winners were announced, and my first experience as a judge sadly came to an end. But I've got hope--maybe American Idol will be looking for a new face next season?

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