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Outstanding local talent displayed during Zoo Music Awards Showcases (part 1)

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I have been involved with three music competitions before moving to Missoula - the OC (Orange County, California) Music Awards (OCMA), Burbank (California) International Film Festival Sonic Sound-off and the SoCal Music Live Awards. During my time with those competitions, I had the privilege of seeing such rising talent as Tyler Hilton, Tyrone Wells, Keaton Simons, Katrina Parker (The Voice), Nina Storey, Josh Damigo, Dave Yaden and Candace Devine (David and Devine), Jason "Slim" Gambill (Lady Antebellum guitarist), Darwin Johnson (Colbie Caillat guitarist), Julia Jordan (Stanley Jordan's daughter), VK Lynne (StOrk lead singer), among others. Needless to say, I was jazzed when I found out about the Zoo Music Awards and the opportunity to check out some new artists.

This year's ZooMA showcases were held in 13 categories at seven different venues over a two night period - February 7 and 8. On Friday night, Top Hat Lounge hosted Bluegrass, Stage 112 hosted Electronic, Palace hosted Rock, Monk's hosted Psychedelic, Sean Kelly's hosted Indie/Pop, and Brooks & Browns hosted Jazz. On Saturday night, Top Hat Lounge hosted Funk & Reggae, Stage 112 hosted Country & Folk, Palace hosted Metal and Punk, Monk's hosted Hip Hop and Spoken Word, Sean Kelly's hosted Singer/Songwriter and Brooks & Browns hosted Blues. The Roxy hosted the Under 18 category both nights.

I started my Friday night at Brooks & Browns as I love Missoula icon Jenn Adams, who strangely enough was competing in the jazz category. Jenn is normally known for folk and blues, but did a great job with several jazz standards. She admitted to the judges that she would never win the category and was therefore going to play some folk songs. It was a most enjoyable start to my evening.

I headed over to Sean Kelly's for the Indie/Pop category. where I stayed for the remainder of Friday night. The first act to take the stage was Wrinkles, a 5-piece band from Helena, composed of Jon Cardiello on keyboards, lead vocals, guitar and bass; Sanders Smith on guitar and bass; Brady Montgomery on drums; Thomas Elgen on backing and lead vocals and keyboards and Markle Quinn on bass, keyboards and guitar.

What amazed me most about this band was the passing of the instruments from one to another, with everyone except the drummer playing multiple instruments. Jon and Thomas both did great jobs on the vocals, and the resulting music kept the joint jumping.

The next act, RomLeo, seemed terribly out of place, as they were a hip hop duo with just a rapper and his DJ. The audience was not very forgiving and did not give them a chance to shine. Nevertheless, they had a couple of great songs, but truly felt out of place in the Indie/Pop category.

Third to the stage were local favorites Confidence Man, a 4-man indie rock band that truly delivered. Composed of Michael DeGranpre on drums and vocals, Seth Goerlich on guitar, Doug Barrett on bass and vocals and Nick Hart on guitar and vocals, this band brought the energy back into the club that had been lost on the previous band. With a killer rhythm section and three different lead singers, it was obvious that they enjoyed playing together. They had nice harmonies, impeccable technique and obvious chemistry. One of the highlights of their set was their version of the Beastie Boys' classic hit You Gotta Fight for your Right to Party, which they delivered perfectly. While they didn't have the crowd that Wrinkles had brought, they did manage to convert quite a few customers at the bar, enticing them to leave their stools and head for the dance floor.

The fourth band of the night, Catamount, was by far the audience favorite, as they packed the place with their fans. Featuring James Riach on guitar and vocals, Brady Schwertfeger on bass and vocals, Irvan Bubic on drums and Ryan Parks on saxophone, the band had a great look and a great sound. Schwertfeger could be a stunt double for Charles Kelly of Lady Antebellum, although his stage presence was more like Sting. As if to drive that point home, the band did a great cover of The Police's hit Roxanne. The only flaw I could find with their performance was the vocals of Riach, which were painfully off key. However, nothing could stop his prowess on the guitar, as he turned in smoking guitar solo after solo. The band also left a serious mess for the bar to clean up as they launched piles of confetti into the air, which did not work well with the melted snow on the floor.

Last but not least was my favorite band of the night, Mendelssohn, a 6-piece band, five of whom had been friends when they attended Elmhurst College in Illinois. The band featured Pete Ruczkowskyj on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, Sarah Marker on keyboards, trumpet and lead vocals, Jon Straisheim on bass, Dan Weiss on drums, Jon Silkins on lead guitar and 12-string electric guitar and Jake Whitecar on keyboards, guitar and xylophone. The harmonies were incredible as was the overall chemistry of the band. I was also mesmerized watching Silkins play his 12-string with a bow. Marker was epic with her trumpet and incredible vocals. Mendelssohn was the only band that truly understood musical dynamics, playing a set that ebbed and flowed with fast and slow songs. The bass line was perfection, as Straisheim obviously enjoyed playing. I can't wait to see them again at Draught Works Brewery on February 22.

Thank you to Tara Shisler of the Missoula Independent for giving me the chance to check out some incredible talent. I'll be back tomorrow with my thoughts on the Saturday showcases.

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