See more photos from Mo's and the other venues at westword.com/slideshow.
Andrea Ball, 12:00 p.m. Andrea Ball kicked off the Mo's lineup with an enjoyable set of mostly piano-driven, literate yet approachable songs that fit well in the Mo's space, outfitted as it was with lots of comfy chairs and couches and a white-and-blue paint scheme. Ball's band -- a violinist, bassist and drummer -- seemed to have a lot of fun playing these somewhat studious songs, bringing them to life through nuanced but propulsive rhythm work and violin-playing that ranged from dramatic arco to punctuative pizzicato to even a bit of scratchy noise-making. The bassist even found room on the tiny stage to jump off his amp. Ball and her band played some new songs from her forthcoming second album, and these songs were the most engaging; hopefully she'll only continue to improve as a songwriter.
Verdict: I should probably admit right now that conventional singer-songwriters tend to bore me even when they're good, and I'm not sure whether Ball's distinctive enough that I'd want to listen to her all by herself, but her band and her soothing voice made her a perfectly agreeable way to start the day.
Jen Korte and the Loss, 1:00 p.m.
"Denver gothic country" occasionally starts to feel like a dead horse, but then along comes someone like Jen Korte and her band, the Loss, to remind us how powerful that sound can be. The twin vocals of Korte and backup vocalist Jessica Mefford could silence a room with their sultry yet haunting power, and the rest of the band filled in the sound with exactly the right kind of bluesy, smoky atmosphere. Patrick Gilliam's flugelhorn -- with a softer, fatter, rounder tone than a trumpet -- was a particularly inspired touch, often making explicit the songs' noirish undertones. Music this arresting and dark almost demands nighttime and sleaze, neither of which were to be found at Mo's on Saturday, but the band stimulated our imaginations well enough to compensate.
Verdict: Korte's got a hell of a voice, and I'd imagine her country-noir sound creates its own smoke-filled saloon anywhere it goes. An absolute treat.
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Joshua Novak, 2:00 p.m. In the middle of his set, Novak noted that this was his fifth Showcase nomination, and that he was getting a bit impatient to actually win for once. "I love all the other bands in my category, but it's on," he said. He certainly played like it was. Playing his right-handed guitars left-handed, like Jimi Hendrix, Novak belted out his dramatic, somewhat glammy indie-pop songs with his boyish tenor, occasionally bringing to mind a less orchestrally-inclined Patrick Wolf. Novak barely seems old enough to have even been on anyone's radar for five years, but his set displayed an obvious confidence and maturity; he certainly deserves to win an award as much as anybody else.
Verdict: I'm not sure there could ever be enough glam-inspired pop around, so thank you, Joshua Novak, for keeping Denver well-stocked.
Tyler Despres, 3:00 pm As a solo artist, Despres -- who also plays guitar in Dualistics -- comes off like the kind of guy who started playing acoustic guitar in order to get laid more in his freshman-year dorm, then found that he was actually pretty good at it. Which is to say that while he has a good voice and plays with a busker's resourcefulness -- leaning away from the mike to do falsetto "backing vocals," recruiting a percussionist to beat on a box and stomp on a tambourine with his boot -- his informality and affability seemed a bit too calculated, a bit too I'm-going-to-charm-my-way-into-your-pants frat-boyish. A dude with an acoustic guitar has to be pretty distinctive to hold my attention, and Depres's songs, while pleasant and well-crafted enough, couldn't distract me from the slightly creepy vibe.
Verdict: Dave Matthews- and Jack Johnson-loving college girls, start lining up.
Ian Cooke, 4:00 pm Ian Cooke brought along his full band on Saturday, and they drew by far the biggest crowd that Mo's saw that day; the place was packed, though some people were at least nice enough to sit on the floor so that the people seated in chairs and couches could see. Cooke is one of the few artists in Denver doing something genuinely unique, and that crowd got treated to a fantastic set of his theatrical avant-pop songs. I've never seen Cooke by himself, so I don't know how different the experience is, but the full band -- particularly drummer Sean Merrell -- really made these songs powerful, heightening the drama and underscoring the intricacies of Cooke's twisty compositional style. The band premiered two new songs, and they were the grandest of all, anthemic, even, with their rare ventures into major chords.
Verdict: The highlight of the day at this stage.
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Ellison Park, 5:00 p.m. Even though Mo's was, I imagine, one of the more subdued venues on Saturday, even there the crowd was feeling a bit too restless by early evening to provide someone as subtle and sleepy as Ellison Park with the proper atmosphere. In a more recital-like atmosphere (or, dare I say it, in a coffeehouse), Park's mournful, slightly bluesy vocals and reverb-drenched guitar might have had more space to work whatever magic they might possess, but even at his few louder moments Park seemed a bit ineffectual on Saturday. The slow tempos and melancholy tone never wavered; they matched the rain outside, but not the woo-hoo-it's-Saturday-night vibe inside, and Park lacked the power to overcome it.
Verdict: Park is the rare artist who might have benefited from an earlier set time. He had a tough time holding my attention, but I'll withhold judgment till I've listened to him in my headphones on an overcast day.
John Common and the Blinding Flashes of Light, 6:00 p.m. First of all, can somebody please set up Jessica Mefford with her own band? Please? Based on her contributions to Jen Korte's Loss and John Common's Blinding Flashes of Light on Saturday, she appears to be the second coming of Neko Case, red hair and all. Her fantastic vocals would have stolen the show (and briefly did, in the band's penultimate song) were it not for the commanding stage presence of John Common, whose stomping, bluesy alt-country songs made for a nice pick-me-up after Ellison Park's somber set, an excellent way to end the day at Mo's. Common's other secret weapons included Wes Michaels, who switched off between cello and soprano saxophone, and drummer Carl Sorenson, who had also played with Tyler Despres earlier in the day. The band played a slightly abbreviated set in order to hurry along to another gig, but it was more than enough to thoroughly entertain the crowd.
Verdict: John Common's crack team of players ensures that his music stays distinctive in a town with plenty of alt-country. Check out Jessica Mefford any time you get the chance (apparently she sings with a number of groups around town).