Jamellee Perkins belted out “Tennessee Whisky,” giving credence to her blues singer aspirations. Kaylie Christie countered with a soft rendition of Grace Underwood’s “Clay,” accompanying herself on a ukulele. Katya Grasso recalled a young Françoise Hardy, recasting Maroon 5’s “This Love.” And Kevin Jones reprised Billy Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” an apt choice given the recent weather.
The singers along with their friends and families crowded the Shebeen bar at Mozambique restaurant last Tuesday, Jan. 31, for “Laguna Voice,” a talent contest modeled on television’s “American Idol,” but featuring local singers from Laguna to Long Beach and points between. “I come here every Tuesday,” said Christie, 18, an Orange Coast College student who lives in Huntington Beach.
Led by François Dean, the band delivered a standout performance, first warming up early arrivals and then accompanying singers, with whom they had met for a 15-minute rehearsal earlier that day.
A pianist and vocalist, Dean was born in Shreveport, La., but grew up in Long Beach, in a musical family. “My great-grandfather played with BB King and I became a professional musician at age 19,” said Dean. Playing a gig at Mozambique last November, he got the idea that staging what he calls a “sing-off” with locals might be a great way to bring people together. The seed for “Laguna Voice” was planted.
The concept won enthusiastic endorsement from music impresario and Mozambique owner Ivan Spiers. “It’s part of our vision to get musicians noticed by growing ‘The Voice’,” he said. “It’s also our vision to help them earn an income, and see people enjoying themselves.”
A native of South Africa, Spiers has lived in Laguna Beach for more than two decades and 12 years ago bought the former Tortilla Flats. “It was a dilapidated, rat-infested mess then and look at it now, a place for great food and music,” he said.
Music promoter and tennis instructor Rick Conkey says the town’s reputation as a music venue has blossomed in the last decade. He praised Laguna Voice as a vehicle for emerging musicians that they might not be able to develop on their own.
Conkey organized the 2015 Blue Water Green Earth music festival in Laguna Canyon and plans a reprise for March 2018. “There are new faces appearing and homegrown talent coming of age. Our music scene is still in need of venues outside of bar atmospheres, venues with proper acoustics where audiences can engage with musicians and take music to a new level,” he said.
Starting out as an open mic event, Laguna Voice has caught on rapidly enough to require preregistration.
On their applications, singers list their song, its author and the key they want to sing in. That’s all the band, comprised of Josh Engel on bass, Dave Foreman on guitar, Shawn Baley on drums and Dean on piano, knows about the singers. “We are not a rehearsed band; we have 15 minutes before each set, said Dean. “But, occasionally we get a walk-in and we have to learn the song right there,” he added.
Aspirants are admonished, “this is not karaoke. If you don’t know the song’s lyrics, don’t sing it.” Reading off phones or pads is thus forbidden and showing up on time to practice with the band a must. Minors must be accompanied by an adult.
Last week, nine contestants competed for bragging rights; first and second place winners earned $200 and $100, respectively. Winners are picked by decibel strength and applause, which at times might imperil sensitive ears.
Such cheers and applause earned Clint Jun first prize for his rendition of Bruno Mars’ “Grenade.” Of Filipino and Irish descent, Jun grew up in Long Beach and became serious about music at age 15. He came in as number 24 on “American Idol” during the 2010 season. “I like to sing dramatic songs and changing them up a little. Not rehearsing with a band, everyone is winging it together,” he said. At age 32, he said that he is equally confident as a singer and music writer.
Propelled by an elegant stage presence, Michael Meyers, 24, wowed with Michael Bublé’s version of “Cry Me a River.” “Music is part of my history. My father and three uncles sang at Disneyland and my mother is also a singer,” he said. Meyers, his mother and siblings also sing at the Mission Basilica Church in San Juan Capistrano during mass. “It’s a hobby, something we love.”
Meyers and Jun, along with Perkins, the previous week’s winner, will be included in a final sing-off of the month, a first for the concept, on Tuesday, Feb. 28.