EDDIE'S ATTIC, JUNE 1 -- Although new faces dominated the stage, the levels of raw enthusiasm and refined talent showcased during Saturday's 16th semi-annual Open Mic Shootout were as high as ever. New master of ceremonies Todd Van Sickle proudly filled the shoes of former host Eddie Owen, describing himself as "the lucky son of a gun who now owns this place." Van Sickle joked that he would "try not to trip over anything" while 22 winners of recent Open Mic events competed one-on-one for a $1,000 cash prize.
An armed forces veteran, Van Sickle kept the show rolling with military precision, but maintained a lighthearted tone by asking '80s music trivia questions between acts (he often seemed genuinely stunned by how well his folkie audience answered questions about Bon Jovi and Guns N' Roses). The event ran till nearly 1 a.m., when young Alabama-based singer/songwriter Lindsey Hinkle triumphed over a field of exceptionally strong semi-finalists to win the concluding round.
Hinkle's victory was startling on many levels. At only 17 years old, she was the event's youngest competitor. And she had started almost last, 19th in the field of 22. Blessed with exceptional beauty and a voice to match, Hinkle expertly accompanied herself on guitar, performing original songs such as "Rainy Monday," whose graceful lyrics and wistful tone would have been impressive from a composer twice her age.
Among those giving Hinkle intense competition were Trina Hamlin, a New Yorker with an astonishing gift for the tambourine and harmonica, and an L.A.-based troubadour known only as Adrianne, whose Alanis-Morissette-meets-Elvis-Costello act was enlivened by her hilarious tendency to make Bill Cosby-ish facial expressions while singing. Even tougher competitors were Ashley Chambliss, a North Carolina keyboard wizard who made one piano sound like two, and Nashville-based Moe Loughran, whose powerful vocal style recalled the mighty quaver of Vonda Shepherd singing the Ally McBeal theme.
Although the Shootout began with almost even quantities of male and female contestants, only two men -- Greg West and Blake Guthrie -- survived the second round of the five-round event. A storyteller in the Kristofferson mold, West had a tortured delivery which superbly suited the imagery in his lyrics. Guthrie, a CL contributor, opted for humor, delivering a delightful reading of his tongue-in-cheek stalker anthem, "I'm in Love with the Checkout Girl."
Other male performers used levity with less success. Southpaw Jones, a left-handed guitarist from Texas, sang a disturbingly bizarre number about using "the cruelty of teenage girls" to replace the air-conditioning in his Buick. Winslow Willard's halting performance of "Allergic to Spring" was punctuated with fake sneezes, and Dan Carrigan's aimless ditty about eating burritos came strictly from hunger.
On a more serious note, Rusty Zarse proved himself the night's most talented guitarist, fluidly demonstrating his mastery of fingerpicking and harmonics. More typically, however, many of the Shootout's other male competitors rasped their way through bad Shawn Mullins impersonations. Boston-based Mike Willis came closest to the original, but he was immediately defeated by Hinkle on his first try.
Going into the final two rounds with all men eliminated from the field, Hinkle triumphantly performed "Happy Ending," a title which proved happily prophetic when she advanced to the finals against Loughran. Although possessing a superior voice, Loughran curiously elected not to play an instrument during the event, and the unremarkable strumming of the solemn guitarist who accompanied her may have swayed the judges' decisions just enough to cost her the prize.
At the night's end, Hinkle's final performance -- a lilting and passionate rendition of her tune "Tell Me" -- won her the contest and the cash.