Within the Belmont bubble, the Best of the Best Showcase is considered the “big time.” In-ear monitors, lighting schemes and backup dancers prove this performance isn’t a house show or a Wednesday night gig at Exit/In. The pressure to deliver is on; you can feel it in the stagnant arena air.
Saturday night, the winners of the 2015-16 Curb College Showcase Series and ASCAP Writers’ Nights shared the Curb Event Center stage, performing original music and covers for one of Belmont’s most classic events.
In their Sunday best, the kids of The Orchardist kicked off the showcase by rocking their mandolins and banjos to a cover Justin Bieber’s “What Do U Mean.” The Christian Showcase winners played their hearts out on this dance pop hit, following it up with an original song. While the group’s cover choice was obscure, the performance was one of those moments that make Best of the Best the unpredictable spectacle it’s known for being.
Interspersed between the Christian, Urban/Pop, Rock and Country showcases are the winners of the ASCAP Writers’ Nights. The four singer-songwriter – Aubrey Holden, Emma Place, Stephen Day and Brad Blackburn – each played an original acoustic selection, a feat quite intimidating in an arena setting. With no full band or strobe lights, mistakes are more evident, and the size of the venue can leave the crowd feeling disengaged from the softer, acoustic sound.
But each songwriter displayed confidence and charisma in four performances free of apprehension. A highlight came in Day’s performance, when he engaged the crowd in a sing along to his soulful, “Sour Inside.” Day showed one man, a guitar and a voice sweet as a Georgia peach are enough to unite an audience of jazz cynics and tone-deaf kids alike.
Much appreciated were the amount of rock screams in rock band Forrest Fire Gospel Choir’s two-song set. Someone had to do it, and it wasn’t going to be the guy from The Orchardist. The typical FFGC bro-fest endured on stage as the band covered the Allman Brothers and switched off taking solos. All 6/8 breakdowns and hair flipping aside, you can tell by their performance the group of Southern rocking seniors really loves playing together.
Kassi Ashton was Best of the Best’s only female fronted act this year, yet she proved to be the one everyone needed. The country superstar and vocal powerhouse’s edgy, energetic stage presence was unmatched by any of those who performed before or after her.
“If you’re not bopping you’re doing something wrong,” she yelled at one point during her performance.
The natural musicianship and inspired confidence displayed in her performance of dark, twangy original “Tumbleweed,” motivated questions of why there aren’t more like her in country today. If anyone thinks of an answer, let me know.
Wrapping up the night was three-piece R&B boy band Sound Proof. Dancing, riffing and throwing customized T-shirts into the crowd, the group led the audience of friends, fans and kids required to attend for their Rec Tech class through the last songs of the night.
“We have a surprise for you!” one Sound Proof member yelled before they carried on with a Nick Jonas/Fetty Wap mash-up.
What was the surprise? A guest performer? Judah and the Lion? Jack White III? Taylor Swift?
Sadly, none of the above. Instead, four female backup dancers in crop-tops and leggings pranced onstage, and the show ended with some shaking, dabbing and lots of other stuff you probably saw at your high school talent show.
For artists and production staff, being involved in showcase provides a look at the difficulties and joys of putting on an arena show. Concise and well plotted, the show went off with only a few minor sound blips thanks to the hard working production team, artist managers and artists themselves.
Moving forward, we can only hope that next year Taylor Swift and the Christian Showcase winner will team up on a new Fetty Wap and Nick Jonas mash-up.
This article was written by Jackie Zeisloft. Photos by Andrew Hunt.