A self-titled “manic pixie nightmare girl,” Anna “Xarissa” James has been playing shows in Gainesville since she was a teenager. Auditioning for Destination Okeechobee was the next logical step in following her dream of becoming an artist.
When she lost in 2017, she was relieved.
“If we had won by audience votes, made it to Okeechobee and played, we probably would have totally bombed that show,” James said.
At 21, her musicality and stage presence weren’t at the level she wanted them to be. Now, five years later, she’s looking forward to trying it out again — but with a better repertoire that feels more true to her authentic self.
On Friday, seven local bands will line Vivid Music Hall’s stage. Though varying in music niches and instrument styles, they’ll all still bear the same goal in mind: put on the best performances of their lives.
Several north central Florida bands will compete in a battle-of-the-bands-style concert Friday. They will be judged based on musicianship, stage presence, originality and crowd participation. The winner will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to perform at the Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival.
Additional Destination Okeechobee competitions to scout local Florida bands will take place in St. Petersburg and Miami.
Gainesville funk band Dionysus took the stage by storm last year to secure the win and represent north Florida at the festival. Other previous winners include The Savants of Soul and The Delta Troubadours.
From Kris Heironimus’ ‘60s-inspired one-man-show Velvet Meadow to Sooza Brass Band’s six-piece brass ensemble, audience members are in for a night packed full of experimental talent that can only originate from Gainesville’s musical hub.
For many local bands, the opportunity to play alongside over 120 artists – including big names like Earth, Wind & Fire; Lil Yachty; and even Gainesville’s own flipturn – is the prospect of a lifetime.
The chance to grow an audience and become discovered is a window of opportunity that could be the next step to grow in these artists’ careers: among the hopefuls to compete and win include Bambii Lamb, Driptones, Jupiter Troupe, OUTEREDGE, Sauce Pocket, Sooza Brass Band, Velvet Meadow and Xarissa.
Xarissa, a 26-year-old singer-songwriter with relatable lyrics behind a soulful rock rhythm, said she hopes she can take the experiences she’s gained in the five years since her first audition to work on her next dream: moving to Los Angeles.
“It's always been a life dream of mine to play a well-known music festival,” James said. “It's a bucket list item.”
After carefully curating her next solo project with originally written songs, James feels much more secure in the quality of her craft. James has been rewatching iconic Charli XCX performances and doing cardio exercises in preparation for this year’s audition, she said.
Other artists, like conceptual high-production pop singer Grace Lamerson, are rehearsing Friday’s setlist like usual, staying true to their roots to show fans their authentic selves. Lamerson cites surreal landscapes, like dreams, as her muse and the vision she plans on executing for the audience this weekend.
The 20-year-old songwriter, known as Bambii Lamb, opened for fellow Florida-born artist Ethel Cain this summer at High Dive. Lamerson looks forward to potentially attending her first music festival this March – both as a concertgoer and a headliner.
“If my first music festival was me playing at the festival, I think that'd be really cool,” Lamerson said. “I'm always trying to get myself out there.”
Sooza Brass Band, made entirely of current and former UF School of Music students, has been practicing every day in anticipation of the audition day to put all their energy into their 15-minute audition set.
“All gas, no breaks energy all the time,” said Brian Burwell, 26, Sooza’s trombonist and stage manager. “It's been a lot of effort figuring out which three or four songs are the best representation of our sound and how to get the best experience for the crowd.”
Sooza also hopes to reintroduce themselves to the Okeechobee soundstage after Gainesville band Matcha invited three members to play as additional players for their Destination Okeechobee set in 2022, Burwell said.
The instrumental band hopes to take the crowd on a customizable journey where each audience member can create their own interpretation of the upbeat brass beats.
Whether from whispers in the local music scene or sharing the same venues in live performances, the competitors know one another and will cheer each other on.
But there can only be one winner.
Contact Loren at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LorenMiranda13.
Loren Miranda is a second-year journalism major and a staff writer for the Avenue. She is also a copy editor for Rowdy Magazine. When she's not writing, she enjoys watching either critically acclaimed films or cheesy reality TV, no in-betweens.