There’s a not-so-secret part of me that always wanted to be a part of something like this. When Josh Schonewolf asked me to be a part of Songbird, a weekly singing competition he’s materialized into something really real, I was honored and pumped. And 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.
Schonewolf’s pulled together 16 contestants from hundreds of audition videos (and in-person auditions) and has structured a weekly American Idol-style elimination singing competition on Tuesday nights at Tabu. Here’s how it unfolds: The contestants sing, the judges sound off and ask questions, and at the end of the night, the judges (There are four of us: two Tabu veterans/managers Freddy Shelley and Keith Stiles; BalletX dancer Richard Villaverde and myself) one-by-one choose a contestant they want to save. The last three standing are up for elimination, and, naturally, folks in the audience and on the Internet cast their vote on who should be saved. The results are announced the following Tuesday, and then the bottom three prepare a re-worked version of their song from the prior week to save themselves. Creativity is encouraged, of course; covers are going to happen and do, but original songs are not unwelcome, and neither are extremely unexpected interpretations of well-established pop songs. There hasn’t been an elimination yet; the first one will happen as this paper’s being printed.
Songbird’s host, Matt O’Neill, segues contestants and shouts out Tweets and Instagrams as the night goes on, giving out $25 to four lucky social media addicts. Tuesday night, #songbirdphilly trended on Twitter, and hopefully it’ll be an even more vibrant dialogue-starter this week.
Now, let’s talk about contestants.
In the first week of the competition, they were encouraged to identify and perform a song that speaks to a theme of “Show Us Who You Are.” Starting at 10pm (doors are at 9pm) and finishing before people grew tired after midnight with 16 contestants was no small feat. The clip was quick. And I’m just going to go one-by-one through each contestant in the order in which they performed.
1. Rob Anthony was dressed in all black, a shiny synthetic leather t-shirt underneath a black cardigan. Josh himself was present for a sound check and was floored by the kid’s fierceness. He did “Bombs,” a Dawn Richard track (Danity Kane) that’s pretty much perfect for a drag queen, and here’s this unassuming white boy singing about “throwing shade” and subtly dancing as he calmly delivers a controlled, soulful vocal. Problem is—and this was standard throughout the night—I wanted more volume. I accused him of not doing more in a performance sense, that he could have thrown his hat or unbuttoned his sweater (or vogued). I saved him. He was chosen 9th.
2. Rachel Rota came out with a very Lisa Loeb-meets-Amy Winehouse look; cute but nerdy glasses, lots of long black hair and a guitar over her shoulders. 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 moved her neck to the groove, seemed really into it and was really charming. She admitted to being “a little scared,” but she was saved by Keith 6th.*
3. Charles Gassaway’s a trip. He’s a staple in the Gayborhood and one of the most light-hearted and gregarious party boys to pick up dollars for drag queens who doesn’t act like he’s 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. He’s in the bottom three.
4. Jo Stones was my first pick for a save. The hair that falls into his face masks him a little, and he wore a sleeveless hoodie over a black t-shirt, which was a little striking because he annihilated Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” He danced comfortably, had some stage presence, knew the song like the back of his hand, and the vocals were loud, strong and powerful. “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.
5. D’Ontace did a tripped-out version of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” He wore a tunic-style, knee-length 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, and, honestly, he did an excellent version that suited his voice—jazzy, soulful and a little seductive. He was chosen 4th by Freddy.
6. Stephanie Brown won a singing competition already, out in the ‘burbs. She was one of my favorites because 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. In this competition, and I know I’m not alone, I want to see bombast and showy popness. No pop star alive got to where they are by standing in front of a mic and singing their brains out standing still (well, maybe Mariah, and pop stars before the modern era). She was chosen 7th by Richard.
7. Alex Nechemia’s a sweet nurse-in-training who’s in the bottom three this week after a simply nervous performance. He stumbled at first and asked for the track to come in from the beginning after a false start, and the nerves were just palpable. He performed The Script’s “Breakeven,” but I was almost certain that it was a Jason Mraz song. Nope. Just sounds like one 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 frothing fear you can smell on him.
8. Madeline Novak did a Jessie J song called “Who You Are” with a guitarist accompaniment. She wore a sick outfit of purples, reds, sparkles and draping, and you could hear she’s got a big voice. In fact, whereas some contestants let the mic fall too far from their mouths, Novak looked like she was about to swallow it a couple times. The chorus ripped, but I tend to hate Jessie J; and while this track’s a solid B-side buried deep on her titular debut, a lack of recognition isn’t always the best thing. She claimed to have a great deal of classic rock experience, so I can’t wait to see what kinds of rock covers she’s got to bust out. She got saved 2nd by Keith.
9. Lobstar Bisque. Oh man, she’s way more than a creamy seafood soup. She’s a 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 and smiles a lot and cracks jokes. She can sing, too, but the real test will be if she can perform without stripping. She was chosen by Keith in the 10th spot.
10. Jason Ferraro is a showman. His style and flippant stage presence are capricious but always colored by his self-aware act of being a drunk—a party boy who’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, that was called “Truckstop Jesus.” Little else needs to be said, other than that his strong baritone and obvious musical talent was what swayed me to save him last. I chose him 13th.
11. 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, who knows, could all be an act. But he’s got to step it up with the vocal dynamism, and that pigeon-toed cuteness won’t last. He said he’s into Radiohead and Snow Patrol, and that made me shiver a little. He was chosen 12th by Freddy.
12. Ellie Parx was my second choice, and I actually couldn’t believe that the other judges passed her over because it was between her and Jo, for me, as my first choice. She ripped through “Ain’t No Other Man” by Christina Aguilera, from her 2006 Back to Basics LP. Parx worked the crowd, she seemed confident, and she knew the song. “I’m in love with Christina. No one can touch her,” Parx said, explaining why the song provided a proper introduction to her. The performance solicited my first and only “bitch sandwich” of the night (Brush up on your Alyssa Edwards, would you?): “Bitch, that was everything, bitch.”
13. Jordan Szenicer is an outstanding talent. To be seen is if he can translate his specific talents into a Gayborhood singing contest because he sang an original and played the guitar, and it was incredible, but it was also a little flat. Only because, 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. He got his guitar after a breakup, Szenicer confessed, and maybe his pain will fuel his success in the competition. He was chosen by Richard as a 3rd pick.
14. Luci Rising is the “soul sister” in the competition, a beautiful young woman in a simple black dress (that turned out to have a skeletal print on the back) who sang “Love Potion.” Honestly, I have no idea whose version or which artist she was covering because the song was a little forgettable, even though it was soulful and sensuous. 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. She was saved by Richard as the 11th pick.
15. Kevin Jordan’s the glam rock boy, a Dumpsta Playa who specializes 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 the psychedelia and drugginess of “Venus,” but it was the end of the night, and I (and the audience) was starting to get tired of all of the slow songs. He’s in the bottom three this week.
16. Luke Grooms brought the house down with an apt finish to the night. A trained opera singer and Southern belle, he annihilated “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. Freddy chose him in the 8th spot.
The judges chose in this order: Jo Stones, Madeline Novak, Jordan Szenicer, D’Ontace, Ellie Parx, Rachel Rota, Stephanie Brown, Luke Grooms, Rob Anthony, Lobstar Bisque, Luci Rising, Paul Hiatt, and Jason Ferraro. That leaves Charles Gassaway, Alex Nechemia, Kevin Jordan to campaign on Facebook and rework their songs for week #2.
*Rachel dropped out over the course of the lag between Week #1 and #2.
The fun continues next Tuesday and every following Tuesday until there’s a winner upstairs at Tabu. Doors at 9pm, and the show starts at 10pm. $5. tabuphilly.com.