They take the stage to treat audiences to hard-charging country, R&B or guitar-crunching power ballads. But these are not the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Gary Allan or the other name-brand ensembles headlining the Napa Town & Country Fair.
Instead, the singers performing at the Expo’s bandstand stage are men and women, and boys and girls, much like the several dozen spectators in the bleachers – except that these people have chosen to become the stars themselves, even if for only one day.
Ordinary folks’ time to shine is at The Grape Karaoke Kontest, the Town & Country Fair’s sing-it-yourself competition that was revived last year. And on Saturday afternoon, contestants like Brittney Murrow and Kacie Blackstone, friends from Petaluma and karaoke bar regulars in their hometown, embraced their few minutes on stage.
“How ya all doin’? Good to see ya!” Blackstone called out, pumping her arm and working the audience like a stage veteran before launching into a fire-eating rendition of Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” followed by her friend’s equally animated take on “Ex’s and Oh’s” by Elle King.
Afterward, the emotional payoff for Blackstone was far beyond what she was familiar with in small clubs. “There’s so much difference; it was a high – I could’ve run a marathon coming off the stage!” he exclaimed later.
Blackstone, Murrow and others were performing not only for fairground fans but for a three-judge panel scoring the contests for vocal performance, stage presence and overall quality. But for one of the judges, the willingness of amateurs to put themselves on the line in public was a victory in itself.
“We just admire the fact that people go stand on that stage,” said Doris Gentry, a Napa city councilmember. “I know that when I was 9, there was no way I’d have been there singing in front of a hundred people. You have to give points for the fact that people try. That’s the whole idea, that you try and try and you get better.”
Grouped with enthusiastic karaoke singers on Saturday were those like Nancy Reichle, who had never faced a paying audience before yet threw legs, hips, arms and heart into her rendition of James Brown’s famed R&B hit “I Got You.”
“I was overcoming my fear – I’d never done this before,” she said after being selected as one of the day’s four adults to perform again on Sunday. “I just overcame my fear and I went for it!”
Phil Trau, founder of Pure Energy Productions and the Napa contest’s organizer, stages contests at the fair in two age divisions, one for adults and the other for children and teenagers. In each division, judges pick three or four singers from preliminary heats on each of the first four days of the fair to compete in a Sunday final for ribbons and cash prizes.
The level of skill from untrained performers can vary wildly from event to event, according to Trau.
“It changes every year – we’ve had years with tons of great singers where it was obvious they were karaoke singers, and other years where it’s random people walking by who say ‘Oh, I should sing,’” he said of events like Napa’s, which the Expo restored to the Town & County Fair last year. “I usually tell people to just have fun. If someone is trying to be serious, trying too hard to hit every note, that comes across to the audience. This isn’t ‘American Idol;’ it’s a karaoke event at a fair and you’re supposed to have fun.”
For many of the older singers, Trau admitted, the idea of “fun” is easily lost amid the nerves.
“The kids are different because they have no fear,” he said earlier Saturday, after four of the afternoon’s youth contestants did an improvised dance following their heat. “A 9-year-old will just come up to the mic and rip it. Oftentimes, a 40- or 50-year-old will be shaking up there, or can’t go up there without a glass of wine or a cocktail.”
Nerves, however, seemed no problem to Murrow, who advanced to the Sunday final with her friend Blackstone and Reichle.
“Literally, having an audience, having people hyped up is so much fun,” she said. “It’s a rush, all your endorphins are going and you’re sweating – and after you finish, the applause is your validation.”