FAYETTEVILLE — There were no slouches at the Wakarusa Winter Classic, held recently at George’s Majestic Lounge. These were seasoned local bands, such as Groovement and the 1 Oz. Jig, and all of them were competing for a performance slot at the Wakarusa Music Festival in May.
The members of Cadillac Jackson, a little-known Fayetteville funk band, knew their chances were slim.
“We got a lot of reaction from people who had never seen us,” said Jared Souza, who sings and plays guitar for Cadillac Jackson. “They made a point to approach us and say, ‘I’ve never heard of you before, where do you play?’ And we were like, ‘Well, we’re from here.’”
Cadillac Jackson was one of five local bands culled by Wakarusa organizers from a pool of online applicants. Festival officials set up similar competitions in 15 cities, from Denver to Chicago to Fayetteville.
Since 2009, the sextet has performed their unique blend of funk and hip-hop at dive bars around Fayetteville and Fort Smith. The Winter Classic was their first shot at a coveted festival spot.
“By the time we went up, there was a sweet buzz in the room,” Souza said. “It was a great opportunity for us because most of the people there had never seen us before. They came as friends or fans of the other groups.”
But most of them left as Cadillac Jackson fans. Audience members clamored to submit their ballots at the show’s conclusion, and the tallied votes declared Cadillac Jackson as the clear winner.
“I think that I would not be the only one saying it’s a surprise we won the contest,” Souza said.
Stephen Tucker, who raps and writes lyrics for the group, left the stage feeling confident.
“We got a lot of people dancing down in the front. To see that no other band that played there that night really got that energy and response, it was a cool feeling,” Tucker said.
The band consists of six members: Tucker; Souza and his brothers Jake and Josh, who play keyboard and bass, respectively; guitarist Logan Cruse; and drummer Justin Danner. The Souza brothers lived in Fort Smith between 1999 and 2005.
Jeff Kearney, lead singer of the competing band 1 Oz. Jig, was impressed by the band’s onstage chemistry.
“I thought their performance was really tight and rehearsed. It looked like they had really done their work,” Kearney said.
“It’s more fun to put a different spin on something you’ve been playing several months than just going up and playing like a robot, with the same tempo and the same intensity,” Souza said.
Improvisation takes time. The band was nervous about the Winter Classic, which allowed them a mere 40 minutes of stage time. A typical Cadillac Jackson set, which often includes covers of songs by Dr. Dre and Outkast, stretches well beyond three hours.
“We don’t know any different. Plus, the longer you play, more money you make,” Souza said.
And money is still very much an issue for Cadillac Jackson, which Souza called “a completely self-financed band.” The group doesn’t yet have enough to pay for studio time.
“Right now, we’re still trying to make that next step,” Souza said.
All but Cruse met while working at TGI Friday’s in Fayetteville. Most members of Cadillac Jackson still maintain a full-time job, but Souza is determined to change that. Cruse grew up in Fort Smith and is an engineering student at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
“Hopefully, someday we can do this thing full-time,” he said.
The band’s win at George’s was an important step toward that end, and their performance at Wakarusa Music Festival could be the next.