The State Final of the Karaoke World Championships happened last Saturday night at the Columbia City Theater, and I was one of the judges. There were 55 contestants and at least 150 spectators on top of that, leading to a five-hour marathon.
When I got there at 5, I spent a little time in the Bourbon Bar watching the contestants as they waited in line to check in. The room was filled with nervous energy and I contributed more than my share. Being a judge is a great honor, but with only two spots to advance and so many awesome singers, I knew I would be directly responsible for sending people home unhappy, and that had me feeling completely uneasy. Once I reported to the balcony and saw all the chaos around putting the show together, it put things into perspective, and I was relieved I didn't have to deal with any of that. The two guys who organized the event, Josh Baron and Steve Butler, were running all over the place and they still looked like they were having fun, so I decided to have a few drinks and loosen up.
I was very happy to see my friend DJ Fehronemo. He hosts karaoke at Goofy's and Hamburger Harry's, and is my favorite KJ in town. They named him a special "mystery" judge in case the contestants ended up in a tie. We hung out in this luxury-suite-type room behind the balcony and talked about some of the contestants we had seen. The two other main judges showed up a few minutes later. The first judge, Billy Joe Huels of the Dusty 45s, I knew would be our anchor--our "Simon," if you will. I decided immediately his professional opinion of these singers' abilities would lead the way as we tried to figure this thing out. The second judge, Flo, the Afternoon Traffic Goddess on KMPS, brought the fun. She was super-positive, loved all the singers, and sang along with every song that she knew. I'd say she was like our "Paula," but she was way cooler than that.
Before the show started, Cindy Bellelli, the Vice President of KWCUSA, gathered us together and explained how she wanted us to rate these contestants. First off, if someone does a great job singing a song that is not very challenging vocally, we were not to award them 9s or 10s. We were to reserve those high scores only for singers who had exceptionally good voices (the three vocal categories were Voice Sound Quality, Rhythm & Tempo, and Vocal Expression). Next, if someone did have a voice worthy of a 9 or 10, but the song choice was bad or performance was boring, we were not to reward them with high points in the non-vocal categories (Stage Presence and Entertainment Value). Finally, at the end of the night, if our scores end up placing someone we felt wasn't worthy of representing our state in this worldwide competition, we can go "off-sheet" and select the contestant who would best represent Washington. That rule made me feel better.
I'm not going to attempt to break down every contestant, but I will try to talk about everyone who stuck out. They drew names out of a hat, and the first singer picked was Zoe. She and I work at the same company. It was great to have her kick off the contest because she's awesome, but it wasn't that great for her. Being the first singer is the worst. Zoe qualified the night before at Tech City Bowl with KT Tunstall's "Black Horse & the Cherry Tree" and sang it again here. I scored her high vocally, and it looked like Billy Joe and Flo were digging her, but she had to wait and see how all the rest of the performances turned out.
The second performer was Mike, a Lou Ferrigno-sized dude in jeans, a light blue wife-beater, and a big black cowboy hat. I had seen him qualify at Kate's Pub last week. He sang "Friends in Low Places" and did a hell of a job. I scored him high, but Billy Joe reminded me what Cindy said about singing easy songs. I had to adjust it down. Mike had a genuine country voice, but that is not a hard song to sing.
Singer three was a guy named Ben, and he sang a fantastic rendition of "Sarah Smile." He sounded a lot like Daryl Hall, and Billy Joe really liked him. I liked him too, but knew someone would snake him eventually in the entertainment-value category.
Another person I saw qualify the night before at Tech City was a gal named Carrie. Zoe had competed against this woman before and alerted us to her skills. She sings with amazing power and brought the house down at Tech City with an upbeat song, but for some reason at the final she decided to sing a slow, depressing, number, "My Immortal," and it was a total drag. Her voice sounded fine, but that song is insufferable. Seriously, listen to that original Evanescence version and see how long you go without wanting to stick your head in an oven.
Brent L. was a returning contestant from last year's finals. He qualified at Tech City a couple weeks ago with his great ability to sing post-grunge alternative metal, and scored easy entertainment-value points that night by breaking out a Guitar Hero guitar and rocking out with it while he sang. He went with that bit again and sang a solid rendition of "So Cold" by Breaking Benjamin, but I didn't get the sense that Billy Joe was feeling the prop.
This gal Maggie was the first female who stuck out after Zoe. She was one of many country vocalists that night, but her version of Miranda Lambert's "Famous in a Small Town" was one of the best song choices of the night.
There were a couple male performers who went back to back singing tough female songs. The first was Josh, this skinny, tall white kid in a sparkly black T-shirt who sang what I thought was a kick-ass version of Alanis Morissette's "You Ought to Know." He sang it high, totally belted it out, and was thoroughly entertaining the crowd. He was followed by a black guy named David who delivered an equally showstopping performance of Tina Turner's "Simply the Best." I gave each of those guys 9s down the line.
We had some technical difficulties during this singer Chelsea's performance of "At Last" by Etta James. Her voice was great, but the instrumental track gave out toward the end of her song, so she had to finish the number a cappella. Flo was very impressed by how well she kept her composure and finished the song as if nothing had happened.
A few singers after the first intermission brought the two instant front-runners within a couple of songs of each other. The first was a Latin-looking dude with a captain's-cut beard and a black pinstriped suit. His name was Sammy. I wasn't expecting much when I saw he was going to do "Unchain My Heart," but from the first moment he let loose it was clear he was the one to beat at that point.
It's hard to call someone a ringer in a competition with so many talented voices, but that is exactly what Baby Van Beezly was. Her style, her voice, and her ability to work the crowd were simply tough to match. She performed Cher's "Believe," and both Billy Joe and Flo (who'd never said anything definitive about any of the other contestants to that point) said she was the best. That song wasn't even close to the best number in her arsenal, but what she brought to it with her dancing, jumping around, and climbing on stuff, you just couldn't help but get caught up in it.
I need to give a shout-out to Angela, who had to follow that. She did an awesome job with Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats," and I want to let her know that it was hot and we all noticed.
Pete is a guy I had wound up qualifying the night I judged at Bourbon bar a couple weeks before. He made his way in by picking a great song and singing it well while a guy with superior vocal abilities sang something unentertaining. He definitely wasn't going to pull it off again here, but he definitely picked a fun song again, and it made me happy and proud that I had sent him through.
He was followed by a white, skinny guy named Jake who turned in a superb version of Marvin Gaye's "Heard It Through the Grapevine." He was a close second to Sammy on my scorecard.
Dana is an attractive redhead I see at karaoke bars all the time. She has a very pretty voice and picks awesome, random cuts. She impressed the hell out of Billy Joe by choosing to sing the '80s hair-metal classic "Nobody's Fool" by Cinderella. She looked gorgeous in a flowered dress, and completely nailed the song.
A lot of singers, in an effort to try and score stage-presence points, started leaving the stage and singing in the aisle on the floor. It started driving Flo nuts because she preferred to see them up there instead of disappearing below us. Every time someone did that she went off about it. It was pretty funny. I eventually hoped singers would do that so it would set her off.
My buddy Juan, who had finally placed at Tech City the night before, actually chose to do a suicide for his number and sang "Eye of the Tiger." I loved the fact that he sang it for himself and didn't care if he could hit those notes. He actually hung in there pretty damn good. I wouldn't even come close. The other guy who qualified at Tech City that night was a guy I met at O'Houlies Pub in Mountlake Terrace. He has a very unique R&B style that he adapts to country. Flo really enjoyed his rendition of Ronnie Milsap's "Smokey Mountain Rain." Riana, my new friend from the week before whom I introduced to the competition, sang Alicia Keys beautifully once again.
Kaeli, a friend I made during my Rock Box review, made a very interesting decision by singing "Black Horse & the Cherry Tree," which had already been performed by Zoe at the top of the night. If there could be one bit of advice I would have liked to give the contestants about my preferences, I would have told them I didn't want to hear any repeats. It still didn't affect my scoring of her that much. She has insane pipes, and I gave her a 9 and a pair of 8.5s for singing, but I know the other songs she can do and she didn't have to rely on that one.
Gabby is another contestant I qualified when I judged at Bourbon Bar. Her rendition of "Let 'Er Rip" by the Dixie Chicks was the hottest country performance of the night.
The best surprise of the evening was seeing that one of my favorites from last year's competition, Dan Williams, had actually placed this year again. He told me he was sitting it out, but there he was. He's the guy I said reminded me of Michael Scott from The Office, and he created this "mashup" style of karaoke. He sang "I Want You to Want Me" and filled in every break with the lyric's to Whitney Houston's "I Want to Dance With Somebody." You really have to hear it to understand how well it works. The guy is a true innovator.
A couple of late performances almost stole the show. Pat Clark of Absolute Karaoke, with his voice functioning at 89% of its full abilities, sang a rendition of "Shout" that made him Billy Joe's instant favorite. Konomi, a girl I was highly critical of last year, was brilliant this year. Her bread and butter is Christina Aguilera, and she hit her song right out of the park. This is exactly what Cindy was talking about when she briefed us at the beginning of the night. There were so many country voices, and all those girls sang beautifully, but Konomi's vocals were heads and shoulders over everybody else.
One of the last singers of the night, Anders, is a dude in his mid-20s I spotted on a random night with my friends at Yen Wor Village in West Seattle last summer. Qualifiers for last year's KWC had been going on for a week, and I told him he had to try out because his was the best voice I'd heard. He ended up not making it to a qualifier and tried to ask Josh to let him in the night of the State Final, but it was too late. This time he did make it in. Of all the performers that night, this guy reminded me of how I approach the mike. I don't want to take anything away from him because he has a way better voice than me, but he sings with balls. He sang "Can't Get Next to You" by the Temptations, and instantly became my favorite male singer.
After the last singer sang, we all got together in the room and worked it out. They had helpers tally our scoresheets throughout the night, but we went straight for who we thought was the best. Billy Joe felt Pat's performance was what karaoke was all about. He loved the energy Pat brought, but our scorecards showed Sammy was our #1. Fehrone was in there with us, and added his support for Sammy as well. We all liked Anders, but Billy Joe felt he was more suited for a band. We ended up giving Pat the third-place slot.
Deciding on the women was a lot easier. We all loved Konomi's late performance and agreed she had the best voice of the night, but the person we wanted to see on TV challenge the rest of the country was Baby Van Beezly. All the contestants had to fill out a slip and name the singer they would chose aside from themselves, and they chose Konomi, so that made things very cut-and-dried. We had Beezly at the top spot, Konomi at two, and gave third place to Chelsea.
When Josh brought up the contestants, the men took defeat a lot better than the women. Overall, the female talent was better than the men, so it was more understandable they would be upset. Congratulations to all the contestants. The winners are headed to the Regionals in Vegas on June 24-26 and the show, Karaoke Battle USA, airs Monday, August 8 on ABC.