I park my car behind Geno's Karaoke Club in Colchester. It's pouring rain, but before going inside I stand straining my neck to see over a tall, poorly painted wooden fence at the edge of the lot. On the other side, seemingly within reach of an outstretched hand, rises one of the sprawling screens of the Sunset Drive-In. Moving pictures splay washes of primary colors over the collecting puddles. Through a cracked door behind me I hear enthusiastic applause and the slow, steady rise of a voice.
The sidewalk is dotted with bottle blondes and big-haired beauties catching a breath of fresh air. A car pulls up and a tall, attractive woman steps out and heads for the entrance. "Hey, honey, you singin' tonight?" someone in the crowd drawls to the girl. She smiles nervously and ducks into the smoky club.
Tonight is the second preliminary round of Talent Quest 2003's national karaoke competition, and Geno's is overflowing with singers, spectators and fans. Vermonters have gathered from across the state for their moment in the spotlight. As I scan the room, each performer seems hungry for victory as he or she prepares to step alone onto the barren stage and sing.
Inside, a tall, well-groomed man saunters up to the stage. A few mumbled, nervous jokes dissolve into the din of clinking glasses and idle chatter. He looks like a banker trying to hip it up for the weekend. With a slight Elvis-like thrust of his pelvis, he tightens his grip on the mike and takes a deep breath. On the screen behind him, a few short lines of text indicate the key, duration and intro length of the man's chosen song. A flurry of notes slips from the club's sound system and he launches into an impassioned rendition of .38 Special's classic-rock stomper "Hold On Loosely." As the music pulses out over the crowd, heads begin to bob, hands start to clap, and a few brave couples venture out to the floor to sway along.
Geno Darrah, the man who brought serious karaoke to Colchester 16 months ago, wanders through the crowd nodding to friends and supporters, bussing tables and checking the schedule of the night's performers. Dressed in black Levis, a tight red tank top and black Stetson, Darrah exudes a modern-cowboy cool. A singer himself, the middle-aged Essex resident has already qualified for the Talent Quest finals, to be held later this year in Laughlin, Nevada.
On stage, a large woman in faded jeans, denim jacket and oversized white Geno's tank steps to the mike. She blinks nervously as the first notes of a ballad resound through the club. I hit the bar.
Waiting in line, a woman in her mid-thirties, face half hidden under a mound of blonde curls, looks up and smiles. "Howdy, darling!" she chirps. I force a smile in return.
The bartender seems to have particular hearing difficulties as he strains his neck over the bar and thrusts an ear in my direction. Yelling through the smoke, I have to ask four times for a Jack on the rocks before he pours it -- into a water glass.
Weaving through the crowd with my massive drink, I notice that there are nearly as many bottles of spring water cluttering the tables as longnecks of Bud. These are some committed singers -- no weekend warriors or crocked college kids. One woman sitting at the table in front of me has spread out her necessities in a meticulous line: cigarettes, water, gum, cough drops, beer.
During a brief break in the competition, Geno straps on a headset and wanders without self-consciousciousness among the tables, clearing bottles as he croons along with a twangy country heartbreaker. Lots of the patrons seem to know each other, and they spend their time between performances cruising around, flirting, chatting and sharing laughs. A tall, rumpled dude struts up to my companion. "Hey, baby," he says with a wink. I resist the urge to tell him that he was off-key for half his tune's chorus.
An older, bearded man sipping a Labatt Blue watches a woman on stage who resembles one of my grade-school teachers. She's working her way through a chilling Patsy Cline classic. So far, so good. A few couples dance, many others lip-sync. These singers are good, but no one is really bringing down the house.
A man wearing dark slacks and a shirt with a sort of melted marble pattern moans through a moving take on "Spanish Eyes." Next up is a gentleman with a shaved head and loud striped shirt. He shimmies around the stage, his voice straining to John Lennon's "Mother." Some people chuckle as he gesticulates, but the guy has undeniable stage presence.
Back at the bar, I ask the 'tender to slap the next round on my tab. "Name?" he yells. "Ethan," I scream back. He stares at me blankly. "Ethan," I shout again, enunciating each syllable. His eyes brighten with a look of recognition as he turns and hands me a napkin.
By now, with most of the contestants done for the night, the crowd is rowdier, filled with excitement, anticipation and alcohol. The judges' decisions are near. Geno calls frantically for quiet, which lasts for about three seconds. This exchange happens at least once between each song from here on out.
After a few more folks have had their five minutes in the spotlight, a tall African-American named Leary Nurse saunters towards the stage. This man is clearly no stranger to the Geno's crowd, which bursts into uproarious applause.
Lanky and casually dressed, Nurse slides into the beginning of R. Kelly's r&b hit "I Believe I Can Fly" and it is, frankly, incredible. The other performers have all been talented, but none has hit it like this. Picking up momentum, Nurse begins to move with the rhythm, thrusting the notes out over his awed fans. A minute or two into the song, his mike goes dead and, without missing a beat, he grabs another, hands the broken one to Geno and carries on. Lighters are raised, casting flickers of yellow light across the room. Nurse breaks into a soaring falsetto and the crowd swoons. The dude is good enough to be a pop star, but this is karaoke, and his fame is limited to the crush of black-topped tables in front of him. Tonight, though, Nurse is Vermont's "American Idol."
As his last notes fade away, the spectators rise to their feet, hollering out approval. Nurse smiles modestly and wanders back towards his seat.
After a 20-minute break, during which the judges tally up the votes, the winners are announced. Bonnie Drake takes top spot in the Female Country category. Dave Cunningham wins as the best Male Country singer. For rock and pop, Madison Johnson and -- no surprise -- Leary Nurse capture the female and male leads.
Next up: the regional rounds, beginning July 11. This will bring crooners from across New England to Geno's stage as they search for a ticket to Nevada to compete in September's National Finals.
As I leave the club, the rain is still falling. Dodging fat drops on the way to my car, I see a new round of singers through the back door of Geno's -- the regulars. They're clearing their throats, polishing off beers and heading toward the stage. The music begins.