Posted by Stephen Smith on 03/29 at 12:16 PM
Students were in the spotlight again this past Friday for the SPA’s Second Student Showcase at the Noontime Concert Series. Six groups were featured in this installment. Similar to before, a wide range of styles were covered, including hip-hop, acoustic duets, and even instrumental electric guitar.
Electric Empire was the first group to perform. They looked a little nervous and stiff, and I got the sense that it was their first time performing (which I later the Collegian later confirmed). At one point, lead singer Ethan Fried dropped his pick in his guitar and had to fish it out between songs, playing it off with a joke. Luckily, their nervousness did not affect the quality of their music. Ethan’s voice was strong and distinct, with nice falsettos and a gritty vibrato. Lead guitarist Chris Franklin played with practiced ease and added catchy riffs. Caitlin Doyle’s cajon filled out the band’s sound. The cajon is the perfect instrument for the HUB, since it is easy to set up and is not overpowering, yet provides the necessary bass and snare to present an authoritative beat.
Overall, Electric Empire’s performance was enjoyable, and I see a lot of potential in them. Their all-original alternative rock songs were well written and there were no glaring technical mistakes. However, they need to come out of their shells a bit to grab an edge to their sound. This will come as they perform together more, but I believe they have enough musicianship to carry them until they become comfortable enough to allow passion into their performance.
The second act featured James Millican. His demeanor united an interesting combination of eagerness, smoothness, and raw talent. The first trait was evident in his lack of eye contact and the velocity with which he drank his Mountain Dew. The second, seemingly contradictory trait came out in his likable introduction before performing. However, it was the third trait that impressed me the most when the talking stopped and the singing began.
Millican’s set started with two original songs that were akin to Rob Thomas in writing style and sound. His voice was his strongest instrument, belting choruses and always on pitch. Though limited—as a solo act—to only playing chords, he managed to get a lot of energy out of the guitar, attacking the instrument with quick strum patterns. The lyrics fit within the alternative rock genre, but I felt they were a little contrived at times. However, the passion with which he sang overshadowed any issue I had with the lyrics.
For his last song, Millican stole the show with a cover of Mumford and Sons’ “Little Lion Man.” When he brought the bass drum up to the stage at the start of the show, I had hoped that he was going to perform that song, and he did not disappoint. The song was an excellent choice for the audience: recognizable and high-energy. After the first verse and chorus, Millican started hammering away at the bass pedal, garnering a large spike applause. Though the song loses some of its charm without the banjo, backup harmonies, and Irish accent, Millican was still able to harness the power of the song through guitar, bass drum, and vocals alone, which is admirable. His eagerness created a high level of energy, made more impressive considering he was alone on stage. His smoothness made him likable before he had even played a note. And his raw talent was undeniable. He rightfully received the highest applause of the afternoon after “Little Lion Man.”
By the time rapper TonyP was sound-checked, there was the usual shuffling of lunch-goers which created an audience of around 40. B.o.B’s “Airplanes” came in over the loud speakers, and I was afraid for a moment that he would do a cover. Instead, he performed his own remix of the song, which grabbed my attention and gave him some respect. At one point during the remix, he mentioned losing his brother, giving an emotional hook to his lyrics. His friend, whose name I was unable to catch, provided backup and added emphasis to his vocals, which created a necessary level of intensity.
After his “Airplanes” remix, TonyP went on to perform three original songs with original beats: “Live My Life,” “Real Not Fake,” and “In My Chest.” The beats were simple without being boring. They had a smooth two-chord repetition, filled out with touches of melodic instruments, such as from an electric guitar and a piano. The beat for “In My Chest” packed the most punch due to its 90s-esque bass line. Also adding to his musicianship was the fact that he sang pretty well for a rapper. Having a good rapping voice usually translates into a bad singing voice, but TonyP’s voice was adequate for both.
On the whole, TonyP had a strong performance and displayed a lot of potential. He has a lot of ambition, getting his name out both at this Student Showcase and at Movin’ On. With a bit more development, he could return to his home town of Pittsburgh with a strong fan base.
Mike Lloyd was up next. He is the first electric instrumental band to perform at the Student Showcases, immediately separating him from the pack. Mike looked calm and humble, saying before his set, “I’m just gonna play a bunch of guitar solos for you.” And that he did. The good thing about his set was that it did “wow” the audience for the first five minutes. His skill with an electric guitar was evident. He started the solo with a lot of distortion and muting the top of the neck with his hand. It barely sounded like music, but it created a cool vibe that he slowly transitioned into melody. Flurries of notes were broken by a long whammy bar pull, and tapping was used liberally and aggressively. Again, his skill was evident.
The bad thing about his set was that it bored the audience for the remaining ten minutes. Though he did get a few chuckles when he played the chord progression of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA,” the solos were largely unrecognizable—all melody and no rhythm. You couldn’t really snap your fingers or sing along to it. Even though he is an amazing guitarist, this was not the audience to truly appreciate his skill. The smattering of applause as he finished was a testament to this. Add vocals, and you have something there. But a solo guitar act was not the act for this audience.
Nick and Derek, an acoustic guitar/piano duet, followed Mike Lloyd. I felt like their set was dissected by several disturbances out of their control that took away from the quality of their show. During the beginning of their cover of Good Old War’s “Coney Island,” Derek’s mic stopped working, even though this song immediately followed their sound check. Then, in the middle of their only original song, a cookie monster-looking mascot for Penn State Baseball intruded the back of the audience, taking the audience’s attention away from them. Nick and Derek took it in stride and promoted the baseball game, while still playing their song. In each case, they had witty banter and rolled with the punches.
Disturbances aside, I liked their sound. Nick and Derek traded lead and harmonic vocal roles, though I felt Nick had a much stronger voice. Derek’s voice lent itself very well to backup vocals, but was very weak when on its own. Nick’s piano playing was excellent, displaying a range of techniques and styles. Their version of “Coney Island” exhibited Nick’s strong voice. His voice had a unique accent in it that fit well with Good Old War’s lead singer, Keith Goodwin. Their original song, which was about the end of the world, sounded very much like a David Bowie song—and I mean that in a good way. The lyrics were well written, and the use of discord for the bridge to symbolize the end of the world raised the intensity of the song. “Daylight” by Matt and Kim was their final song, leaving their set on an upbeat, if not disjointed, note. I enjoyed Nick and Derek and would like to see them again—uninterrupted of course.
The final and most elaborate act of the afternoon was Sunny B. This rapper was supported by an acoustic bassist, a drummer, and female backup singers. The emphasis on the rhythm section accented by the backup singers created an almost R&B feel to their group, which I found interesting. He had the most complete sound of all the acts, but sadly only performed two original songs. In both cases, the bass line and drumming started out simple, then grew in complexity to a crescendo. The drummer was very impressive in his technique and subtlety. He played delicately so Sunny B could be heard, but played strongly when it was his turn. He could play 16th notes with one stick, whether on the hi-hat or snare. Likewise, with one bass pedal, he could make it sound like he was using a double bass pedal. This technique is hard to develop and is usually an indicator of natural skill. The bassist left much to be desired, but he did his job and did not make any mistakes.
Like TonyP, Sunny B (no relation) also had both a good rapping voice and a good singing voice. The backup singers were also very good, creating a nice melody to counterbalance the acoustic emphasis on rhythm. The lyrics were strong, though lacked a catchy hook to them. At one point, he even called out Graham Spanier, which got a nice rise out of the crowd. He forgot the words at one point, but shrugged it off and went with it. The integration of rap and acoustic instruments is always refreshing, and between Sunny B, the backup singers, and the drummer, there is a lot of talent and potential. I was disappointed when they finished after two songs, and I’m sure the audience felt the same way.
The SPA demonstrated Penn State’s musical potential again last Friday with another impressive showcase. The styles were varied, but the sound was always raw. With each new group came a new perspective into the budding musical ambition offered by the student body. I applaud the SPA for these showcases that have provided outlets for creativity and originality.
Author: Stephen Smith
Bio: Stephen Smith is currently a senior English major at Penn State. In his free time, he enjoys playing Xbox, drumming, playing his guitar, and writing fiction. His favorite genres include alternative rock, emo, indie, metal, and most anything played acoustically. His favorite bands include Say Anything, Counting Crows, City and Colour, and Daphne Loves Derby.
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