Songbird has been quite the journey. We started with 16, and 11 weeks later, there were only five contestants left: Jo Stones, Luci Rising, Stephanie Brown, Madelaine Novak and Jordan Szenicer. With only one show remaining—Tuesday night’s will have eliminated two more contestants as of press time—it’s down to the wire, and there’s a whole lot at stake for these finalists. The grand prize winner gets $2,000, a song on iTunes and a three-night run at the Adrienne Theater on Jan. 3rd through the 5th. Next Tuesday, Dec. 17, a winner from the last three standing will be crowned, but it’s far from over for Josh Schonewolf, the show’s creator and producer, or for Songbird: A second season is already slated to kick off at Tabu on Tues., March 18.
Songbird’s long road had some twists and turns, no doubt—two contestants quit, others got sick and forfeited the opportunity to perform in order to get well, and one lucky singer was brought back after being voted out. Here’s a reminder on how it generally works: Four judges—of whom I am one—take in the performances and sound off with observations, not wholly unlike American Idol. Songbird, until a couple weeks ago, let judges, one-by-one, choose contestants to save. Then Schonewolf threw in a twist by having the judges strategically allocate points between the singers in the bottom three.
At the beginning, the competition felt promising, but there was definitely a need to trim the pool. Occasionally, a singer’s dismissal would mystify the audience, the judges and the singer themselves. But for the past few weeks, the contest itself and the performances have been fierce and proper. With the elimination of Lobstar Bisque and Rob Anthony last week, all bets are off, and the remaining singers can taste that check for two grand. While the focus has remained firmly on vocal talents, it’s become increasingly clear that aspects of stage presence, instrumentation and general magnetism have come into play both in judging and in how Songbird’s presentation has evolved. The important question remains: What kind of show will the winner put on at the Adrienne, and will people want to buy tickets?
Here’s a bit of handicapping, from my judge’s perch, on Songbird’s final five.
Jo Stones has a great deal of musicality and talent, capable of manning a piano while singing passionately and lighting up a stage with carefree comfort. The Texan even turned in a performance of his own material at Connie’s Ric Rac recently that floored his fellow contestants, Schonewolf and me. His opening slot was a stunner, and his mix of blues, a little country, folk, all with a sharp eye for pop hooks, could take Stones to the number-one spot.
At the tender age of 21, Luci Rising is new to the performance game—totally green to stages and mics—but her futuristic jazz flavor’s been mesmerizing fans each week and regularly captivating the heart of at least one judge. For the Beyonce/Gaga and “One-Hit Wonder” challenge last week, Rising went rogue and did Janelle Monae’s “Cold War” and Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You.” Grilled about her choices, she simply retorted, “I thought I was going home and wanted to do songs I love.”
Chester Idol winner Stephanie Brown has really come into her own, and she’s been bringing the powerhouse vocals and pop diva sex appeal since Week One. After a scandalous week in which both she and Novak chose Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Goin’ Down” for a ‘90s R&B jam challenge, it was clear that Brown ain’t playin’. Every week, she brings more stage presence and heat. Don’t be surprised if you keep hearing her name in Philadelphia as she starts collecting fans—and gigs.
Madelaine Novak has been trying to translate her rock raucousness to the Songbird stage for weeks, both succeeding and struggling. Last week, for her “One-Hit Wonder” pick, she turned in a favorite of the night: The Darkness’ “I Believe In a Thing Called Love,” complete with moon boots and a blowup guitar to mime the shredding solos. She’s been known to turn in uniquely stylized interpretations of well-known songs; one such translation garnered a stamp of approval from guest judge Robert Drake (who’s signed on as a judge for Songbird’s second season). She may not have all the tricks in the wheelhouse of a couple other competitors, but girlfriend’s got the fight.
And finally, Jordan Szenicer blew the competition away early on with his stunning bring-down-the-house performances, but he lacked a little theatricality. While it’s important to rely heavily on the firm grasp of one’s own talents, the judges stressed that sadness and coffeehouse ballads every week wouldn’t work. Szenicer listened, and in a season-changing performance of Brian McKnight’s “Back at One,” he put down the instruments and just sang his ass off. It’s been fun to watch him stretch out his songbook and take on brand new pop songs, and in doing so, he’s proved that he’s an exciting performer to watch—one audiences would happily spend $12 to see headline at the Adrienne.
Needless to say, Schonewolf is “beyond thrilled” with Songbird’s inaugural season, and he’s pumped for a bigger, better second run come spring. “I feel responsible for giving a stage to very talented musicians and singers for 13 weeks,” he says “Unearthing contestants like Stephanie Brown and Jo Stones and having them become names around town is something that I’m very proud of. This whole thing was a mystical spell that I put on myself a year ago, and a year later, I feel like a very proud daddy bird.”
Tues., Dec. 17, 10pm. $5. Tabu Lounge & Sports Bar, 200 S. 12th St. 215.964.9675. tabuphilly.com
PW's Music Issue 2014