As I walked along the sidewalk on my way to Schubas, I noticed a flickering TV screen through an apartment window. American Idol was starting. Someone told me that it was “elimination night.” As the ticket attendant stamped my hand to get into the club, I hoped for everyone’s sake that America—and Idol’s trio of famed judges—would pick the best performer. After all, in the world of popular music, fame can be fleeting, and it takes a lot to keep an audience’s attention.
Since the new Idols aren’t out of incubation, California native Ernie Halter took on the task of warming up the Chicago crowd. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a raspy, soulful croon, he christened the first portion of the night with a set of gospel-drenched blues. Tailoring his performance to the crowd, he got back affirmative yelps when he playfully inserted “Chicago” into his geographically endearing lyrics (if only Sanjaya had thought to do something similar).
LEIGH NASH [Photo: Colleen Catania]
Following Halter, Leigh Nash—formerly of rock band Sixpence None the Richer—took the stage, singing with a shy immediacy that seemed to shrink the room, or rather transform it into an infinitely more intimate space. Unfortunately, she was forced to battle the annoying background bustling of mid-set gabbers who apparently weren’t interested in her captivating performance. It was a shame since the deeply personal songs—mostly drawn from her 2006 solo debut, Blue on Blue—told of her struggles after Sixpence’s split and the experiences she’s had since the birth of her two-year-old son, Henry. She told the abridged version of her career’s back story and said that, even though she’s only 30, she feels old—the result of experiencing fame and success at age 15, after pop hits “Kiss Me” and “There She Goes” started their run up the Billboard charts. After prefacing “Kiss Me” by saying, “You guys have probably heard this song a million times, but I still think it’s a great song, so I want to sing it for you,” Nash performed a sparkling version of the mid-‘90s twinkler, delivering it without any of the triteness or predictability that often accompanies a star’s return to their first big hit.
TYRONE WELLS [Photo: Colleen Catania]
And then it was time for a hitmaker in the making—Tyrone Wells, solo artist extraordinaire and former singer for Christian-rock band Skypark. Wells must be good at poker: as his band set up on stage, he waited in the wings, let out a yawn, and then adjusted his lean on a side pillar. He swaggered from the shadow of the wings into the spotlight and catapulted into a strong and versatile set that mixed soul, hip-hop, blues, and pop-country love ballads. It was fun to watch fans soak up the engaging rock ‘n roll charisma, and it’s obvious that Wells knows how to work a crowd (of mostly women, plus some guys who might have just been boyfriends along for the ride).
Wells prefaced most of the songs from recent release Hold On with stories, and at one point revealed that “Ocean Breeze” was inspired by a fan’s request that he appear and play at a seaside wedding proposal. Before you could say “I DO,” all the ladies in the house were wiping tears from their eyes.
All set long, Wells showed that he has the chops to graduate past the sappiness of the repeated love ballad and perhaps write songs that develop more nuanced emotions. During a multi-decade melody in which he tapped the tunes of everyone from Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson to Lauren Hill and Mary J. Blige, Wells exhibited his stylistic versatility.
While that alone would serve him well if he ever had to face American Idol’s barrage of weekly challenges, out here in the real world, where we prize more than just performance, I’d like see him display same versatility in the emotional content of his own songs. His yodeling was impressive, but, when he told a story about his dad teaching him how to do it, I got the feeling he wants to, and can write songs like those more transcendent tunes he covered. That’s not to imply that he isn’t already amazing. Paula would probably give him a pass—or a teary tirade—but sometimes it’s also important to think about what Simon would say.
ERNIE COLTER [Photo: Colleen Catania]