Military community vies for third annual songbird title
No Simon. No Paula. No Randy. Not even a hint of Ryan.
While millions of Americans tune in weekly to watch the judges and host of “American Idol” interact with aspiring stars — or put down those with little talent — hundreds of military community members at Air Force bases in Europe have been gathering to cheer on the local talent.
“USAFE Idol” isn’t on the same scale as its famous televised counterpart. Local winners receive checks for $350. They get to participate in the finals — scheduled for Saturday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany — but there’s no record contract waiting. Shows are held in relatively small venues, with friends in the front row recording the competition on hand-held video cams.
This is the first year civilians are allowed to participate, although most performers are still active-duty airmen.
“As an Air Force pilot, obviously I don’t have a musical career,” said Maj. Larry Speer, a member of the 76th Airlift Squadron at Ramstein and the winner of the inaugural contest in 2005.
“There’s absolutely no professional aspirations. I don’t have that kind of talent.”
Speer, who also competed in this year’s contest at Ramstein, might be selling himself a bit short. While there aren’t record producers flocking to USAFE bases, there are several people at each show who might have a shot at a career in entertainment, with some luck here or there.
“All of them can sing,” said Maj. Scott Guidry, commander of the USAFE band. “All of them have stories to tell. I’m surprised at how much talent is out there that you otherwise wouldn’t see.
“And they’re brave. …”
It takes a certain kind of personality to grab a microphone and test your vocal abilities in front of several hundred people. Even for those who are used to being in front of a camera.
“I was soooo nervous,” said Staff Sgt. Adrienne Brammer, who won this year’s competition at Aviano Air Base, Italy, by performing “Part of Your World” from the movie, “The Little Mermaid.”
said talking into a camera didn’t give her an advantage.
“I do a lot of theater acting,” she said. “So that helped some.”
Brammer’s stage experience probably helped. While vocals make up 60 percent of the total score, judges — who range from three to five at the various base competitions — base 40 percent on stage presence.
“I admire your talent,” Brig. Gen. Robert Yates, commander of the 31st Fighter Wing and one of the judges at Aviano, told the 10 contestants at his base.
“I also admire your courage, because there’s no way I’d manage the courage to get up and do that.”
It helps to have a few friends on stage. In this case, that’s Touch ’n Go, a seven-member band from USAFE that plays at all the shows. Matthew Peacock (keyboards), Doug Bennett (bass guitar), Jason Cale (lead guitar) and Jerry Textor (drums) are there for every song. It’s the contestants who change.
“It’s definitely a challenge for someone who has never sung with a band before,” said Geoff Fisher, one of two vocalists with Touch ’n Go. “It takes some getting used to.”
The band practices with each contestant for 30 minutes the day before the performance. Much of the time is spent playing the primary song the contestant wants to sing. Guidry said contestants must select two songs: one from a list of about 300 the band already knows and another of their own choice. The second song is sung only by the winner at the local contests.
Michael Smith, the band’s sound engineer, records the band playing the song and then makes a CD so the contestant can practice later. And he and the rest of the band offer a few tips.
“If we’re too high or too low, we can change the key for you,” Bennett told one contestant at the rehearsal.
“I know you don’t want to put (the microphone) closer to your face, because it doesn’t look as good on television. But it sounds better,” he told another. AFN Kaiserslautern is expected to tape part of the final competition for broadcast later.
Guidry said most of the songs chosen are pretty easy for the band to pick up. No one has chosen to try rap yet. Or metal rock.
“Most of it falls within a realm of what they normally do,” he said. “Pop, rock or country.”
Everyone shows up for a dress rehearsal the morning of the show for a final run-through with the band.
The audiences and number of performers vary across the theater. There might be only a few dozen people watching at RAF Alconbury. There were almost that many contestants on stage (19) at the local show at Ramstein.
Brammer said she didn’t expect to win at Aviano and will just try to enjoy her experience at Ramstein.
“To be honest, I wanted to do this just so I could sing with the USAFE band,” she said.
They’ll be there. Simon, Paula and the rest will have to read about it or snag a tape from AFN.
The final round
The 2007 USAFE Idol contest will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Officers Club on Ramstein Air Base, Germany. There is no admission charge for spectators, and seating will be available on a first-come basis.
Here are last year’s winners: 1st place — Senior Airman Tony Howard, Volkel Air Base, Netherlands 2nd place — Staff Sgt. Michelle Miller, Ramstein Air Base, Germany 3rd place — Master Sgt. Douglas Gosselin, RAF Lakenheath, England
Honorable mentions: Master Sgt. Irand Denton, RAF Mildenhall, England Capt. Shelly Frank, RAF Alconbury, England Capt. Hollie Losee, Lajes Field, Azores Senior Airman Elizabeth Milliken, Aviano Air Base, Italy Tech. Sgt. Walter Womack, Incirlik Air Base, Turkey