When Josh Schonewolf asked me to be a judge at Songbird, his new American Idol-style weekly singing competition on Tuesday nights at Tabu, I was honored and pumped. Now that I’ve experienced one week of judging, I’m almost as terrified as the contestants are about how the next 12 weeks of competition are going to unfold.
Here’s how it unfolds: Songbird’s 16 contestants sing, we sound off and ask questions, and at the end of the night, the four judges (Tabu vets Freddy Shelley and Keith Stiles; BalletX dancer Richard Villaverde and myself) each choose a contestant they want to save. The last three standing are up for elimination, and, naturally, audience members and voters on the Internet have their say on who should be saved. The results are announced the following Tuesday, and the bottom three prepare a re-worked version of their song from the prior week to save themselves. The first elimination was last night, as this week's paper was being printed. And the fun continues every Tuesday till there’s a winner.
Now, let’s talk about contestants. In Songbird’s first week, they were encouraged to perform a song speaking to the theme of “Show Us Who You Are.”
Rob Anthony was dressed in all black, a shiny synthetic leather T-shirt underneath a black cardigan. He did “Bombs,” a Dawn Richard track (Danity Kane) that’s pretty much perfect for a drag queen, and delivered a controlled, soulful vocal. Problem is—and this was standard throughout the night—I wanted more volume.
Rachel Rota came out with a very Lisa Loeb-meets-Amy Winehouse look. She sang Alex Clare’s “Too Close,” a Brit whose sound is far more grand, produced and electronic than the performance Rota brought. But she seemed really into it and was charming. She admitted to being “a little scared.”
Charles Gassaway’s a staple in the Gayborhood, a light-hearted, gregarious party boy who doesn’t act like a celebrity. He had a last-minute song switch from Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” to Sam Sparro’s “Black and Gold,” and a lot of it had to do with a cold he was battling. It was hard for him to match Sparro’s bassy baritone, and he seemed shockingly nervous.
Jo Stones was my first pick for a save. The hair that falls into his face masks him a little, and he annihilated Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” “I’ve been a mess at points in my life,” he admitted when Freddy questioned why this song showed us who he is. I lovingly joked that you could hear Tammy Faymous running to rehearsal.
D’Ontace did a tripped-out version of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” He wore a tunic-style button down and had his hair relaxed, and it hung in front of his shoulders. His round, thin-framed glasses belied the ’60s flavors he was turning out—jazzy, soulful and a little seductive.
Stephanie Brown has won a singing competition already, out in the ‘burbs, and she brought the whole package: She sang Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” and wore a strategically-shredded, all-white long-sleeve shirt with bright white jeans. I want to see bombast and showy popness. No pop star alive got to where they are by standing still in front of a mic and singing their brains out. (Well, maybe Mariah.)
Alex Nechemia’s a sweet nurse-in-training who gave a simply nervous performance. He stumbled at first, and the nerves were just palpable. He performed the Script’s “Breakeven,” which sounds like a Jason Mraz track with its charming, high-pitched “falling to pieces” chorus. You can hear that there’s a voice inside, but he’s got to overcome the fear you can smell on him.
Madeline Novak did a Jessie J song called “Who You Are,” with a guitarist accompaniment. While some contestants let the mic fall too far from their mouths, Novak looked like she was about to swallow it. She claimed to have lots of classic rock experience, so I can’t wait to see what kinds of rock covers she’s got to bust out.
Lobstar Bisque is a whole lot of woman—a burlesque star who brought her naughty striptease act into a jazzy, classically-minded interpretation of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” She liked my tie, and that’s part of her schtick. She’s flirty, smiles a lot and cracks jokes. She can sing, too, but the real test will be if she can perform without stripping.
Jason Ferraro is a showman. His style and flippant stage presence are capricious but always colored by his self-aware act—he’s both non-plussed and pumped to be in the building. He’s the front man of the stellar local band the Homophones, and while his band’s not gay, he is. He performed an original, just with his guitar, called “Truckstop Jesus.” He’s got a strong baritone and obvious talent.
Paul Hiatt’s an a cappella guy who did Death Cab’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” He’s real cute in that All-American, gee-whiz kind of way, standing in a plain grey t-shirt and singing with a certain earnestness and emotionality that could all be an act. But he’s got to step it up with the vocal dynamism; that pigeon-toed cuteness will only go so far.
Ellie Parx was my second choice, and I actually couldn’t believe the other judges passed her over. She ripped through “Ain’t No Other Man” by Christina Aguilera. “I’m in love with Christina. No one can touch her,” Parx said, explaining why the song provided a proper introduction. The performance solicited my first and only “bitch sandwich” of the night (brush up on your Alyssa Edwards): “Bitch, that was everything, bitch.”
Jordan Szenicer is an outstanding talent. Yet to be seen is whether he can translate his specific talents to a Gayborhood singing contest. He sang an original and played the guitar, and it was incredible, but it was also a little flat. Like Freddy said (”I don’t want to see you look at the wall”), we’re going to want to see him move around and engage a crowd. But his vocals are, maybe, one of the best in the pool.
Luci Rising is the soul sister in the competition, a beautiful young woman in a simple black dress who sang “Love Potion.” She’s got a great Badu/Sade vibe, and I even told her I’d love to hear her sing “Bag Lady” or something playful. She cited Portishead as a big influence and also confessed to being a novice, claiming this was maybe her third time singing in public.
Kevin Jordan’s the glam rock boy, specializing in arty gayness a la Lou Reed. He wore a Kangol hat, reflective aviators and a tight white t-shirt that drew a whole lot of attention to his nips. He did “Venus in Furs,” and his slinky, seductive work-over of the crowd suited its psychedelia and drugginess, but it was the end of the night, and folks were starting to tire of all of the slow songs.
Luke Grooms brought the house down with an apt finish to the night. A trained opera singer and Southern belle, he annihilated “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” He said, like many gay men have before him, that he’s often felt like a large black lady trapped in a white boy body. His vocals were in control and powerful. He’s one to watch.