by Sayaka Matsuoka

Jeff Wall towered on the stage, adjusting the microphone to accommodate his 6-foot frame. “This one’s not going to be G-rated,” he said as he began his bit. “My wife doesn’t like me singing about my penis anymore so I asked myself, ‘What else is there that I care about?’” The answer came in his carefully titled original composition, “Guitars and Titties.”

More than 80 people packed themselves inside the obscure venue nestled on the bottom floor of the maze-like Community Arts Café in Winston-Salem on Feb. 20. The room, full to the brim with eager musicians like Wall, toting guitars, ukeleles, harmonicas and harps, sweltered 10 degrees hotter than the rest of the building. They were all there for the Winston-Salem Shuffle’s season-end finale.

Steven Wishnevsky started the event about five years ago as a monthly unique open-mic style platform for artists new and old including musicians, singers and poets. Recently, Wishnevsky’s workshop, where he masterfully handcrafted wooden guitars, burned down. Shortly afterwards, without hesitation, the Winston-Salem Shuffle community banded together and raised more than $500 to rebuild a new workspace for the founder. A clear jar full of crisp bills with the words “the Wishnevsky fund” sat at the entrance of the event.

The shuffle is usually open to anyone to perform original work, but this latest gathering brought together past winners and runners-up from the previous year to compete in one ultimate all-star competition, complete with judges like a local version of “The Voice.”

A white mini-grand piano sat on the small stage that was just big enough to fit a three-man band. Regulars filled the tables in the front of the room, while equally eager spectators filed into the numerous rows of chairs. The judges clustered towards the front of the audience, masquerading as normal viewers amongst the crowd. Each would vote on a 10-point scale and the total would be averaged out for a final score.

The night took a rocky start as the first musician forgot many of his lyrics, but things got back on track by the second act as a duo played Irish instrumental music on the guitar and harp. The beautiful notes that streamed from the stringed instruments transported listeners, calming and making them forget they were in downtown Winston-Salem and not the Irish countryside. A wide range of talent followed suit, with several men playing folk guitar while others like Wall sang comedic pieces which included a parody of Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

While most of the acts were entertaining, the most notable and captivating performances in the 15-part show were the ones by the younger musicians. A Norah Jones-esque Sandy Uselton won the highest score in the first round of the competition with her song “Smile” and was among the best. Dressed in casual slacks that matched her laid-back style, her sultry and bluesy voice blew people away as she sang and strummed her guitar. Khiana Meyer performed directly before Uselton, and her pretty vocals and country-infused songs pushed her to the final round, where she tied for first place with Craig Poole.

Although the oldest of the finalists, Poole’s calm and polished folksy-blues style won the hearts of the older audience including the judges, transporting them to the mountains of North Carolina at sunset. His voice had a way of echoing through the microphone and filling up the crowded room as if ringing across rolling hills. The strong support by the audience and the judges of the country-tinged performances prompted Wishnevsky to comment by saying, “They say country music is dead. Yeah right.”

Juxtaposing Poole’s clear, smooth and palatable voice was the equally unforgettable Steven Maier. Though Maier didn’t make it to the final round, his hoarse, grungy sound reverberated through the hall with every desperate cry. His rough-around-the-edges, Mumford-and-Sons style was fresh and piercing, and while it may not have been as smooth as Meyer or Poole, Maier definitely has something new, different and memorable. His two performances of the night were full of passionate energy reminiscent of the end of Ed Sheeran’s “Give Me Love,” complete with screaming sounds and complicated guitar playing. While he may still have some cleaning up to do to cater to a wide audience, Maier’s performance created the most lasting impression of the night.

Players of all different backgrounds took to the stage throughout the night and displayed talents in short bursts. The event may have lasted three hours, carrying on late into the night, but the entertainment shined long enough to keep the audience engaged and present. Because let’s face it, where else can you go to see a harpist play Irish music and a man sing about his “erectile dysfunction blues” in the same night for just five bucks?

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