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And the Winners Are ...

But in the end, there can be only one; although the second and third place winners made off with some goodies of their own. After much fretting and nail-biting, the judges finally picked the winners: Niki Leeman took first-place honors at the Zelda's/MARS Studios Songwriting Showcase with two crowd-hushing performances. "Diamond Mines" was a lesson in open tunings and rootsy allegory, with each verse more poignant than the one before. "Riverbanks" was more of a bittersweet love song to God with a broke-down edge: ("Come on, God, confess/You're crippled, fragile and helpless/Tell them you don't have a clue/We're on our own and so are you").

The second-place winner, Matthew Embry, did things a bit differently. Well, a lot differently. On his first song, "Lost Souls Back to the Overmind," Embry karaoke'd over an eerie, mildly disturbing piano part which he had prerecorded. As I listened to him sing playful nursery rhyme verses about the apocalypse ("Helen Caldicott says that we're mincemeat/Helen Caldicott says that we're doomed/I hope when the maelstrom comes, it's not down my street/Request when the firestorm blooms/I'm high on some good shrooms"), I got the distinct sensation that I was having a waking nightmare, except that it somehow wrenched a few nervous cackles from a hidden part of my soul. I felt connections happening in my brain that perhaps should not have happened, leaving me with the slightly nauseous feeling that I may somehow be permanently changed, and only time will tell if it's for good or ill.

Eli Salzman took third place with a sweet, polished delivery of two rich and righteous ballads, "Trust" and "Dig Down." sassaeo Sprool took fourth place, and Sacha Landry fifth. Now, I have something to say about all the other talented songwriters who played that evening who didn't "win" anything. And don't you dare roll your eyes at me unless you were there--I eat cynics like you for breakfast, British-style, with sausage and bacon. But here it is: I should note that, even though it may sound trite and redundant, everyone was a winner, really, and not just for the obvious reason that they had to win in order to make it to the finals. More on that later, though. (Editor's Note: Thanks to Amy and the whole crew at Zelda's for all their help.)

The Women Who Rocked My World

Thrice was my world rocked by women in song last week, starting at Henfling's where a little songbird called Erin McKeown sat to roost and charm us with her sweet little voice. Her vocal style reminds me a lot of Mirah and a little of Björk, with a generous touch of vintage '30s style. She does a great Judy Garland impression (she does worship her, after all), and plays a playful mix of swinging jazz, rock and cabaret tunes on acoustic and electric guitar. The show was a bit more sedate than it might have been if she would tour with a band. Her clever songs and words wilted a bit in the harsh spotlight without the bigger and bawdier sound of the album versions.

Meanwhile, Kristi Martel and Little Bird played the Cayuga Vault last week, belting out a pan-emotional piano/keyboard/guitar/dual-vocal set a la Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, if a bit quirkier than either. But not before Molly Hartwell kicked off the evening with her first full-length a capella set. Judging by the hooting and hollering from the audience, it's obvious that she's already a hometown favorite. Her performing style was humble and straightforward and her delivery soulful and spirited. And although her voice was strong enough to carry the a capella set, even a mythological siren would be hard-pressed to make a captive audience of me for more than a half hour if she was singing by herself. Whether it's a sign of the times or just a sign of my wandering juvenile mind, I'm not really sure, but I prefer solo a capella as a punctuation mark rather than a genre. An interplay of sounds and/or voices just has so many more textural possibilities than the lone voice, no matter how strong. But she got a standing ovation and demands for an encore, which goes to show how much I know about the matter.

Mike Connor

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From the January 22-28, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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