Best of Springfield®

Best Arts, Culture and Music

Best Arts, Culture and Music
Oakie Morris

Eric Tinsley

So we finally wised up and added a category for the most important band member, at least that’s what these keepers of the bottom end and masters of the groove feel, anyway. With any one of the finalists a likely contender for the bass crown, Eric Tinsley fingered the highest level of the lowest sound makers. A sought-after bandmate, known as a profoundly good fellow to go along with his funky feel, he’s generally found in more than one project at a time, laying down the bass for the band to follow in various combos. Eric currently plays with After Sunset, a classic cover band based in Springfield, recently sat in with Off the Wall and played with several other popular groups around town during his couple decades of raising the bar by lowering the pitch. How low can you go? Pretty high, we’d say, if you’re considered the best bass player in town.
Finalists: Jeff Cunningham, Keith Voegele, Bruce Williams, Chris Warren, Chris Harris

Oakie Morris

You won’t find a more likeable candidate for best drummer in Springfield nor will you find one more likely to keep the beat in the pocket, the band moving and the dancers hopping. Oakie, famously retired from full-time drumming not long ago, but old(er) drummers don’t quit, they just keep keeping time. He still grabs the sticks for Ultraviolet or his new band, Scrapyard, and joins in when asked to beat the skins for other groups on occasion, including F5 this past August during the Illinois State Fair (his wife, Janet, is a lead singer in the band). Oakie started drumming as a youngster and has played nearly every weekend since with everyone in town. The guy even has a burger named after him at the Sunrise Cafe. Now that’s the best!
FInalists: Scott Mundstock, Brandon Drew, Patrick Miller, Eric Austin, Pete Jeffers, Darin Holthaus

Hipbone Sam

A consistent winner in the blues band category, along with others in the music section, singing the blues is only one of the many talents on display at a Hipbone Sam show. A consummate entertainer, known for his “lemme hear you say, yeah!” shouts and interactive bongo participation with the crowd, Kevin Hawkins, aka Hipbone Sam, delivers classic rock and original tunes, along with a steady dose of backbone blues. Backed by a tightknit group of stellar musicians, including Rick Mari (lead guitar, keyboards, vocals), Rob Ross (drums, vocals), Mark Riefler (bass, vocals) and the latest addition to the band, Zack Fedor (harmonica, guitar, vocals), the boys in the band play local, regional and wherever shows on a steady basis. With tunes on AMI Rowe Entertainment and TouchTunes Digital Jukeboxes in the U.S., Canada and on military bases worldwide, the reach of the Hipbone goes far and wide, and that’s why he’s considered the best of the rest.
Finalists: Brooke Thomas & the Blue Suns, Mary Jo Curry, Hurricane Ruth, Back Pack Jones

Best Arts, Culture and Music


2909 N Dirksen Pkwy

From top name, contemporary country music artists, to classic acts of rock and country, the folks at Boondocks bring in the best, and audiences around here appreciate that fact. They aren’t a bit shy about showing strong support of local bands as opening acts and hosting benefits for those in need. The building, central Illinois’ largest live music venue, once housed a late-night dance club, but now bands rule the stage and live music flows through the space on a regular basis. Basically, a standing-only venue with limited table seats, the general admission openness allows fans to get up close and personal, and that can be fun and exciting. In 2016, the owners proudly accepted the prestigious Nightclub of the Year award from the Academy of Country Music, so our readers aren’t the only ones thinking Boondocks is the best.
Finalists: Curve Inn, Blue Grouch Pub, Black Sheep Cafe, Bar None, The Alamo

Springfield Art Association Collective (formerly Prairie Art Alliance)
420 South 6th Street (Hoogland Center for the Arts), 544-2787

It appears the recent coming together of the Springfield Art Association with the Prairie Art Alliance created a bigger and better group for artists to join and our readers believed the combination to be the best gallery space in town. The PAA started in 1979 as a support group for female artists called the Women’s Art Alliance, then opened to all genders in 1995 as the Prairie Art Alliance and soon opened a shop and studio on the grounds of the SAA. The group moved into a new space on the lobby floor of the Hoogland Center for the Arts in 2004. In January of 2016 the merging (or “re-merging” perhaps) of the PAA with the SAA to form the Collective began with the intention to “inspire a new era of collaboration and foster a unified spirit among the artists of Springfield” and certainly is off to a delightful and supportive start in doing so. Art on, all.
Finalists: Studio on 6th, The Pharmacy, The Blue Door, Christy!Studios, The Studio, DEMO Project

Brooke Thomas & the Blue Suns

Not particularly known as a jazz artist, those smooth and sultry vocal stylings of Brooke surely brought the votes out for her in this category. More of a pop and blues artist, she can get jazzy with her singing ways, and apparently that’s what swayed our readers. The Blue Suns, led by Mike Burnett, can make a note turn wherever and whenever, putting Ms. Thomas into any category of popular music she feels like vocalizing at the moment. From beginnings as a non-live, performance vocalist, Brooke has grown into an emotive live performer, playing several times a month and doing original songs as well as familiar covers. What is the best in Brooke, however, comes through her winning personality and generous character, and that brings out the best in us all.
Finalists: Jane Hartman Trio, Frank Trompeter, Frank Parker, Juke House

DJ Evo

What makes the best DJ? Most folks consider seamless song mergers with intermittent banter plus heavy beats and mixes of familiar and new tunes all set to keep the dance floor hopping and the good times rolling. Formerly the DJ at some of our best dance nightclubs, including Marly’s Pub, Lucid, Club Station House and others, DJ Evo brings a little edge to the party and it looks like our readers appreciate the bad boy, fun times that Mr. Sean Layton, aka DJ Evo, brings to the club table. Currently he’s not listed in our Pub Crawl as DJing a regular spot, but be sure he’s out there somewhere, lurking in the shadows, ready to dial up the beats and crank up the bass to get bodies jerkin’ and twerkin’ on the dance floors of the capital city.
Finalists: Mikee Connolly, Ryan Bandy, DOPEBOYNEXTDOOR, Annatomic Holliday, Yatti Ely

Lick Creek

Voted best new band in town in our BoS of 2014, two short years later, Lick Creek is on top of the always competitive country band pile. Country rockin’ bandmates Brandon Drew (drums), Matthew Wedel (bass), Wesley Ingram (lead guitar), Ryan King (lead guitar, banjo, mandolin), Lance Stone (lead vocals) and Maddie Brown (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), played their first show in December of 2013 and continue to bring the “philosophy that it’s not just how well you play a song but what kind of energy you put into a performance” to every show they do. Influenced by classic rock and country, the spin from Lick Creek began with covers. Recently they’ve let loose a five-song EP being marketed to radio stations as they intermix the songs into regular show setlists. The band feels like family and maybe that’s why they seem to best to us.
Finalists: New City Road, Wolf Crick Boys, Tennessee Borderline, Copper Canyon

Best Arts, Culture and Music
Jacob Woodard as Beast and Stella Cole as Belle in Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast, Springfield High School
Stella Cole, Belle, Beauty and the Beast, Springfield High School
Jacob Woodard, Beast, Beauty and the Beast, Springfield High School

Looks like a clean sweep for SHS in the theater category as the modern Disney version of the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast as told Broadway style, brought down the house. Stella Cole as Belle, has been on stage a good deal of her young life and recently performed in a Hoogland production of Godspell. Jacob Woodard is no stranger to performance as well. SHS alum Craig Williams, II directed the musical, supported by Christie Lazarides (assistant director), Damien Kaplan (musical director), Morgan Kaplan (choreographer), Mark Gifford (vocal director) and Kim Carter Parker (producer). Nearly 50 SHS students participated in this stunning and vibrant production that came out best in the stiff, local competition of high school theater.
Finalist Production: Footloose, Sacred Heart-Griffin; Into the Woods, Glenwood High School, Once Upon a Mattress, Rochester High School
Finalist Female Lead: Hannah Hogan, Princess Winnifred, Once Upon a Mattress, Rochester High School
Finalists Male Lead: Noah Schlosser, Gaston, Beauty and the Beast, Springfield High School; Justin Brandson, Ryan, High School Musical, Pleasant Plains High School

Bar None

Hip-hop still feels like an underground happening in this town, but Bar None and Torch Tuesdays are doing the best they can to bring the dance/rap combo music to the forefront. Local first-timers, regional artists and national touring acts find their way to the corner stage at the popular downtown watering hole every Tuesday, keeping the beat and the words flowing into the night and out into the streets. The nightclub also features live roots rock bands on Fridays, an acoustic open mic every Wednesday and dance music late night on Saturdays, making it not only the best hip-hop venue around, but a good spot for many styles of music ’most every night of the week.
Finalists: Lucid Bar and Nightclub, Black Sheep Cafe, Wet Bar

Captain Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters

This bunch is going into the BoS hall of fame sometime soon, as they continue being the winning band in this category, year after year. With the inimitable J Bird himself leading the pack, aided by a sweet Coors Light sponsorship through Robert “Chick” Fritz Distributing, Inc., fellow Geechers or SSSers, if you prefer, Peter, Majeeda, Marc, Buster and Joker, along with Kerry Ginder on sound, keep the show moving, the crowd hopping and the gigs coming. They pile aboard the official CG & the SSS bus when it’s time to head out, making a good circuit around the region. From headlining beer tents at the Illinois State Fair and county fairs to bopping the boogie at festivals from Keokuk to Quincy, Decatur to Dallas City, Springfield to Jacksonville, the mighty Geech machine keeps rolling on, making all in its way dance, party and have a heckuva good time.
Finalists: The Shenanigans, Lick Creek, The Mix, Take 10


The Deep Hollow

What can you say about this talented trio other than they deserve all the credit and attention they’ve been getting lately. Elizabeth Eckert, Dave Littrell and Micah Walk, all respected solo artists (just look at other Best of category winners) found magic when they combined talents a few years ago. Between the songwriting, the harmonies, the musicianship, the look and the hard work of practice, promotion and booking, The Deep Hollow is our standard bearer for the original, acoustic-based sound so popular these days around the country and in town. Still riding the crest of a well-made, original record that reached #3 on the Folk/DJ charts and the accolades of receiving a national award in songwriting from American Songwriter magazine, surely, the best is yet to come for these three marvelous music makers.
Finalists: Americana/Folk Band: Tom Irwin’s Hayburners, The Blue Gs, Ben Bedford, Western Empire
Finalists Original Band (any genre): NIL8, Tom Irwin’s Hayburners, Looming, Owen & Dooley Present, Enamel

Dave Littrell

Not only is Dave voted in as the best guitarist, he may just be the busiest as well, which likely explains a lot. You can hear him as one third of The Deep Hollow, our winners of the Americana/Folk Band and Original Band categories, where he sings and plays acoustic guitar, among other instruments. For his prowess on electric guitar, check out his prog-rock, jam-band, The Station, that Dave cofounded in 1999 and took out on the road for nearly a decade. He then fronted the Dave Littrell Band and released a solo acoustic project in 2011. If you want more proof-of-talent, take a listen to his guitar work in The Shenanigans, one of the area’s top pop-rock cover bands. But most of all Dave is likely to be best known for being the best dad and family man, which may the best thing of all.
Finalists: Howard Freitag, Owen Irwin, Jeff Kornfeld, Robert Reynolds, Eric Carter, Michael Webb, Tony Dyer

Elizabeth Eckert

A third of The Deep Hollow, Elizabeth continues her domination of this category as the group pretty much swept the awards in all respective categories. She started performing out at age 5, made a good run at “American Idol,” then a few years ago joined up with Dave Littrell and Micah Walk to form The Deep Hollow, performing live shows and co-writing material for the trio’s debut CD. She also sings with the Shenanigans, one of the area’s top cover bands, and likely grabs inspiration from the current hits of the day and classic covers to add spice to the more folksy songwriting associated with TDH. Wherever the creative juices flow from and however they make music happen, our readers consider her to be the best female around at writing songs and singing them.
Finalists: Brooke Thomas, Mary Jo Curry, Hurricane Ruth LaMaster, Sarah Sgro, Amy Benton

Micah Walk

From youthful times in his hometown of Girard to those first weekly gigs in Springfield, on through the Micah Walk Band days and the solo experience, straight into the exciting, current time with The Deep Hollow, Micah has consistently produced good songs on a regular basis. His easygoing manner masks the strong determination of a creative soul, bent on grasping the universal truths and bending them into songs. And he can also sling out a singable melody, which helps a lot in writing a song that sticks around long enough to become memorable. A good look at the finalists shows a hefty bunch of crafty male singer-songwriters hanging out in Springfield, including Deep Hollow bandmate Dave Littrell, but Micah walks to the finish line voted the best by our readers.
FInalists: Dave Littrell, Tom Irwin, Devin Hayes, Josh Catalano, Ben Bedford

Best Arts, Culture and Music


What can you say about the Brothers Williams that’s not been said? The boys started NIL8 as teenagers in Mrs. Williams’ basement during the 1980s, then watched and participated as the band went through a growth spurt of touring and recording in the 1990s. In the last few decades, Jeff and Bruce saw the band settle into one of the most popular and intergenerational bands in town as they slowed the performance rate, but the crowds kept coming. Different musicians have covered the drums and lead guitar during various points in the band’s legacy, with Damon Soper (lead guitar, high vocals) and Wes Salinger (drums) at those spots for the last several years. High-energy shows with self-deprecating humor and intense musicianship keep the audiences in awe of the continuing power of NIL8 being at their best.
Finalists: The Timmys, It’s a Livin’ Thing, PRYSS

Off The Wall

Just ask any of the Wallers, those special and dedicated fans of Off the Wall, what makes these guys so well respected and highly appreciated as the best rock/pop band in town. Since there’s plenty of fans at every show, you shouldn’t have any trouble, but we think they will say it’s a combination of the musicianship, choice of songs, personalities of the players and the lifelong dedication of each musician to the craft of learning popular rock songs and playing them well. The person that embodied that spirit more than anyone left us in June of 2016 when bassist/vocalist and founding Off the Wall member Rusty Koehler passed away suddenly. Others have filled in for Rusty, but no one can replace him. We think Off the Wall, the Wallers and all concerned heartily and fondly give this award to Rusty and his musical spirit, which indeed was the best of the best.
Finalists: Fun DMC, The Mix, After Sunset, Looming

Sophie Lanser, Ariel, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, The Muni
Disney’s The Little Mermaid, The Muni

This production of Disney’s Little Mermaid is a first for The Muni, often a home to wonderful repeats of popular musicals of our time. The animated 1989 Disney film, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen, became a musical on Broadway in 2008, then had some professional tweaking in 2012 before finding its way to The Muni stage and Sophie Lanser’s inspiring presentation of the Disney heroine, Ariel. Directed by Craig Williams II, his staff took creative license and used the flying mechanisms on stage to simulate performers floating through water. Sophie, who last appeared at The Muni in All Shook Up, is an industrial engineering major at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It took some getting used to, pretending to be floating while flying, but she managed well enough to become the best to our readers. How Williams II and his fabulous crew presented the staging was nothing short of the best.
Finalists Female Lead: Anna Bussing, Billie Bendix, Nice Work if You Can Get It, The Muni; Tiffany Williams, Deloris Van Cartier, Sister Act, The Legacy Theatre; Lori Ann McCabe, Ursula, The Little Mermaid, The Muni; Meredith Vogel-Thomas, Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd, The Muni
FInalists Theater Production: Sister Act, The Legacy Theatre; Godspell, Hoogland Center for the Arts; Nice Work if You Can Get It, The Muni; Hello Dolly, Theatre in the Park; Love is Eternal, Edwards Place

Best Arts, Culture and Music
Felicia Olin

Felicia Olin

Does it feel like not very long ago Springfield was void of a visual artist scene supported by the public? Nowadays galleries abound and artists show works at a rate that was unheard of a decade ago. We say thank goodness for that and thank goodness for the brilliant work of Felicia Olin and the scene that helped expose her art to us. Her iconic, sensitive, sorrow-eyed faces of wisdom and longing that adorn a good deal of her paintings seem to be a part of our community culture, a solid thing that appeared as if it were always there. Raised in the capital city, she lives near the Lincoln home with her artist husband, Jim, and continues to work as a painter. She recently took off on a wandering tangent of forming collages, while not knowing, but always wondering, where her art would take her. Fortunately, we get to come along for the ride.
Finalists: Jeff Cartis Williams, Brandy Fletcher, Kevin Veara, Troy Freeman

Jim Leach, Horace Vandergelder, Hello Dolly, Theater in the Park

When you take an iconic community media figure and put him in an iconic role in a well-loved and revered musical from the golden years of theater, we think that’s one of the best things that could happen and so did our readers. Jim Leach, known to everyone with ears in earshot of a radio as one of Springfield’s most respected and listened to radio show hosts and commentators, has always had a taste for the stage and singing. He’s expressed a real interest in performing at the multilevel outdoor stage at Theater in the Park and has appeared in other productions there in the New Salem State Park venue. Perhaps his joy of theater combined with his attraction to the special space led readers to choose Jim as better than the rest, to be the very best among the fine group of actors nominated.
Finalists: Ryan Fisher, Prince Eric, The Little Mermaid, The Muni; Ralph Shank, Frank, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hoogland Center for the Arts; Anthony Glover, Eddie Souther, Sister Act, The Legacy Theatre; Albert Capati, Jon, Tick, Tick... Boom!, Springfield Theatre Centre

UIS Sangamon Auditorium
Public Affairs Center - 1 University Plaza, 206-6160

One of the most lovely designed and acoustically sound venues just about anywhere, the Sangamon Auditorium, on the campus of University of Illinois Springfield, is indeed a crown jewel of our community. The 2,018-seat performing arts center and concert hall was built in 1981 and through the years has seen a cavalcade of stars, thousands of theater productions and countless shows of all kinds roll across the well-worn stage. Home to our illustrious Illinois Symphony Orchestra, the hall hosts several concerts of symphony productions annually. The venue also books shows specifically designed for grade-school kids and offers the space for a few specific community productions. Director Bob Vaughn, a hometown fellow, uses a lifetime of experience in the field to find popular and well-planned shows, keeping the best ticketed venue in town headed for continued success.
Finalists: Prairie Capital Convention Center, Hoogland Center for the Arts, Illinois State Fair Grandstand, The Legacy Theatre

Curve Inn

Many things go into hosting a successful and long-running open mic and most of that revolves around having a host with the most. The Curve Inn gives us a pair in Sam Draper and Kortney Leatherwood, on stage every Tuesday night from 6:30 to 9:30, from April through October, in the Curve’s lusciously designed beer garden. That means you also get to be mixed by Ric “Skippy” Major, the award-winning soundman camped at the Curve, plus use a backline to play through and professional stage lighting to top off your open-mic performance. No wonder folks think Sam and Kortney have a good thing going. If you can’t wait until next year, try one of our finalists’ open mics held indoors year round, then make sure you get to the best at the Curve Inn in the spring.
Finalists: Blue Grouch Pub, Bar None, Weebles Bar & Grill, George Ranks

Downtown Springfield

Well it sure is nice to have so many music festivals to choose from when not too many years ago hardly any such events graced our city streets. SOHO was among the first to start the trend and definitely began without public funds or sponsorships, or hardly any private cash for that matter. Always considered a benefit cause where the bands and volunteers donate time to raise money for charities, the event has given thousands upon thousands of dollars, all gathered in the name of fun, to area charitable organizations. In doing so, many bands and musicians received an opportunity to play on a big stage in front of big crowds, to the point where SOHO organizers turn away many more bands than they can host. Every year the event gets a little larger with more stages and artists. They recently added a 5K run plus other events to help SOHO become the best fest that can be.
Finalists: Old Capitol Blues & BBQ, Downhome Music, Beer & Art Festival, Clayville Music Festival, Dumb Fest

Springfield Art Association, “Canvas & Cocktails”
Condell Studio, 700 North 4th St.

When it comes to Paint Night, our readers know how to pick them, but it wasn’t easy. In a hard-fought battle, showing the intense loyalty of each separate location and host, the Springfield Art Association won victory with its Canvas & Cocktails event. Held on Friday evenings with hosts Sam Brown and Cinda Sausaman from 7 to 9:30, you can bring your own wine, cheese and desserts (these items are highly recommended), then work on a themed project, designed to be completed that night, as you paint your masterpiece from an inspirational photo, aided by the knowledgeable instructors. The SAA provides the art supplies so you can concentrate on the painting (and the wine) while having some Friday night fun the best way you can.
Finalists: It’s Scrapicated; Picasso on the Prairie; Paint Out Social, Sarah Dufner; Painted Love by Lindsay Pat; Christy Freeman’s at The Blue Door



Brandon Austin

Finalists: Momma’s Boy; Agent O; Pytch White

Blue Grouch Pub
510 W Maple Ave S, (217) 527-8395
Finalists: The Burger Bar; Koo Koo’s Nest; Club Station House; George Ranks

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