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Composing Hallelujah



Published September 19, 2012 at 9:32 a.m.

Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson
  • Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson

Ever watch the “The Voice” on NBC? Me neither. But methinks I may be tuning in over the coming weeks, even though it violates my standing rule against watching reality television — aside from “Top Chef,” of course. And that’s only because one day I will marry Padma Lakshmi and live out my days cooking for her and our 14 absurdly beautiful children. Ahem.

Aaaanyway, in case you hadn’t heard — which likely means you’re not on Facebook or Twitter or have been in a coma for the past week — Burlington’s Nicole Nelson, of the über-excellent blues-and-roots duo Dwight & Nicole, is killin’ it on the major-network talent show.

For the unfamiliar, “The Voice” is basically the Peacock’s answer to Fox’s “American Idol,” which was America’s answer to England’s “Pop Idol,” which was England’s answer to Ed McMahon’s “Star Search,” which was the evolutionary cousin of the “Gong Show,” which … well, you get the idea. It’s a talent show. It involves voices. And celebrities!

The format on “The Voice” differs from that of “Idol,” in large part because there’s no jerky British guy in a V-neck slinging jerky British insults at overwhelmed teenagers, or startlingly unhealthy-looking members of Aerosmith as judges. Instead, the judging panel consist of Cee-Lo Green doing flamboyantly Cee-Lo Green things, handsome country star Blake Shelton being handsome, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and his tattoos, and Christina Aguilera’s cleavage.

But the primary difference is in the varying stages of competition. The first is a blind audition in which the four judges sit facing away from the stage and can only pass judgment based on what they hear — the voice, get it? — which is actually a pretty awesome wrinkle. The judges are evaluating talent to put together a team of singers, which they will coach through the remaining rounds. When judges hear something they like, they hit a button, which spins their chair around and means they want that singer on their squad. If more than one judge wants a particular contestant, the contestant chooses which team to join. Ya dig?

Nelson, doing a soulful version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” was a unanimous choice, as all four judges requested her vocal services. Levine (and his tattoos) was first to chime in. The other three waited until she hit a spine-tingling, Jeff Buckley-ish high note at the song’s apex before dinging their buttons. Having never seen the show previously, I have no idea if a unanimous decision is common, though I suspect not. In any case, it’s a good sign, right?

So what does it mean? Nelson, who chose Levine as her coach — and gets Mary J. Blige as a mentor — advances to the battle round, in which she and one of her teammates will square off head to head, singing the same song. Then, in the first of the live battles, contestants from each team duke it out, with home audiences voting for a winner. There are several hurdles in the rounds beyond that, but should Nelson win it all, she’ll get a big bag o’ cash as well as a record deal with Universal.

I caught up with Nelson by phone over the weekend, and she was, unsurprisingly, overwhelmed by the national attention since her episode aired last week. (Her version of “Hallelujah” has been well within the top 100 on iTunes since.)

Nelson said she was initially leery of competing on a reality show but that the format on “The Voice” was appealing.

“I felt this show was different,” she said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to share music and every emotion in my heart with the entire world. To feel that connection is something that is so often missing when music gets too simplified or polished up. So I thought, It’s time to put your money where your mouth is, indie girl.”

Nelson is home in Vermont, currently enjoying some downtime while the rest of the first-round auditions play out. But she’ll be back on the national stage soon competing in the battle round in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, you can catch her the next two Wednesdays, September 19 and 26, when she sits in at her partner Dwight Ritcher’s ongoing residency at Nectar’s. Nelson calls the weekly gig the “best hang she’s had in a long time.” (Cut to a single tear running down Cee-Lo’s cheek.) And I don’t doubt it. While you might not see Ritcher on “The Voice” or “Idol” anytime soon, dude is a tremendous vocalist and guitarist in his own right. Together, the two are among the finest — and previously underappreciated — acts currently calling Vermont home. In other words, Dwight & Nicole can spin my barstool anytime.


In a related story, you probably didn’t know this — mostly because I’m making it up — but back in the 1980s, cock-rockers Led Lo/Co were finalists on “Star Search.” The band ultimately lost to teen pop idol Tiffany. Well, technically they were disqualified for unseemly booze-fueled shenanigans involving a pants-less Ed McMahon that have no business being recounted in a family newspaper. But still, of the two musical acts, only one has since posed for Playboy, so there’s that. Anyway, the boys are back in town for roughly their 1276th reunion gig. They’ll be at Nectar’s this Friday, September 21. And they’ll be at the drunk tank on the corner of Pearl and North Winooski early on Saturday, September 22.

I’m hesitant to mention anything about local comedy since hearing that my name came up more than a few times during the recent farewell roast of Kit Rivers — I’m sure only nice things were said, right? Still, I really get a kick out of writing about the burgeoning local comedy scene — and I hope you do reading about it. Until now, though, the bulk of my comedic reporting has been centered on standup comedy, the most visible form locally. But nationally, standup’s unpredictable cousin, improv, has been exploding in popularity. For that we can likely thank comedians such as Stephen Colbert, Will Ferrell and Tina Fey, who started out in troupes like Second City or Improv Olymics. Anyway, Burlington, always charmingly behind on national trends, just might catch up this Saturday, September 22, when the Spark Improv Troupe from Spark Arts debuts its quarterly improvisational-comedy series at Club Metronome. The show will feature a crew from ImprovBoston, who will teach a workshop at the Spark Arts studio earlier that day. If you’re unfamiliar with improv, the easiest point of reference would be the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” The art form has myriad other styles, but that’s the closest approximation to what you can expect at Metronome. If you like what you see and maybe want to try it yourself, you can always drop in on the improv sessions at Spark every Wednesday.

Last but not least, a little bit of shameless company shilling. As you may have seen, our annual — award-winning! — college guide, What’s Good, hit the streets recently. In celebration, we’re throwing a big ol’ party and inviting several of our closest EDM DJ pals. The Mixmasters Showcase this Friday, September 21, at Club Metronome features 10 of the area’s finest DJs. They represent styles from across the increasingly varied EDM landscape, from dubstep to moombahton to trap to whatever new iteration was just invented while I was writing this sentence. We’ll have cats from several of BTV’s best known DJ crews, including Mushpost, 2K Deep and Bonjour-Hi!, Also of note, DJ Llu will drop by, both spinning and pushing the second season of her excellent interview podcast, Tour Date. The first episode, featuring indie pop duo Matt & Kim, drops Wednesday, September 19.

Listening In

Once again, this week’s totally self-indulgent column segment, in which I share a random sampling of what was on my iPod, turntable, CD player, eight-track player, etc., this week.

Grizzly Bear, Shields

The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter

Menomena, Moms

Bob Dylan, Tempest

Swale, A Small Arrival

Speaking of Music, soundbites