The third and final set of "The Groove," the soul/jazz showcase that goes down every Sunday night at the Red Cat Jazz Cafe (924 Congress), is by far the most important set of the evening. This is how it works: After the featured artist finishes his or her 20- to 30-minute set of covers, medleys and originals, the open-mike list is brought out and the young up-and-comers take to the stage. One of them performs an intriguing rendition of a popular tune and becomes an INTERNATIONAL SUPERSTAR!
Okay, so that last part doesn't really happen, but when an amateur shows that he's serious about his craft, the Red Cat gives him a proper venue to practice it, showcase it and, hopefully, make a good bit of change off it. For the past year, manager Dan Bowie has made it his business to turn the Red Cat into not only a premier performance space for visiting acts but also a breeding ground for new talent. A veteran promoter of parties, concerts and get-togethers (including the Kappa Beach Party), Bowie decided to throw a weekly talent night featuring locals doing R&B and soul standards -- because he couldn't find it anyplace else.
"I wanted to create a platform for local artists to be able to get on stage, hone their talent, work on being in front of an audience, doing something original and usually doing some cover songs, giving them the opportunity to go somewhere and be heard," says Bowie.
But on this particular Sunday evening, few seem willing to take Bowie up on the opportunity. After singer Mechell "Get Down" Brown finishes bolting out a bevy of rambunctious numbers (including a pleasantly surprising rendition of D'Angelo's obscure "Chicken Grease"), she holds up the open-mike sheet, which has barely been touched. "Does anyone wanna get on the list?" she asks. Apparently the would-be up-and-comers are a bunch of nervous Nellies.
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Eventually, some people do finally get enough guts to sing for the laid-back crowd -- including Brown's shy yet vocally capable pal, Yolanda Alpough. Miss Joy, a big-boned, ponytailed gal in a colorful sweater, gives it a go as well, with a version of Shirley Murdock's "As We Lay" that's entertainingly superfluous. (Lemme put it this way: Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Bleeding Gums Murphy does a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that lasts about half an hour because he throws in a lot of riffs and ad-libs?) "I make it my own," she says when she finishes her lengthy number. "I don't do it just like Shirley Murdock or Kelly Price. I do it my own way."
Another faithful yet still distinctive performance came from 20-year-old Carlton Hicks. A Houstonian who's now in his sophomore year at Howard University, Hicks put some deep, long-overdue soul into Johnny Mathis's notoriously light-as-a-feather standard "Misty."
"When I first learned it, I didn't have the Johnny Mathis version to listen to," Hicks says. "I mean, you have to put your own version of how you think the song sounds."
These performers are smart to take their shot. Bowie has discovered a rotating panel of featured favorites at these open-mike sessions -- including Brown, Liz Vaughn, Andre James and Dana Jackson. After they showed their chops during the amateur set, Bowie gave them the opportunity to headline future dates. Says Bowie, "If I see somebody that continues to come back, and the crowd is continually starting to vibe with them and enjoy their performances, then I try to work with them -- if they're really interested in making that a career that they want."
For Chicago native Brown, who has already worked the club circuit here and in her hometown, the Red Cat is a place where singers can elevate themselves as artists rather than stylists. "It's not so much about the money," explains Brown, who says she often comes down on Sundays to perform even when she's not on the bill. "It's a good opportunity for practice, to get to refine your art."
That doesn't mean these performers can't shop around for a good record deal when they're not refining. Brown is currently recording a demo album. And for the time being, she and Vaughn are leaving their management in the hands of Bowie. After all, he has the power to call up someone from his Sunday-night talent pool to open for the Red Cat's national acts. In fact, the club's anniversary show on Sunday, January 19, will include performances from the aforementioned roster, as well as a popular national performer to be named later.
"Right now, I'm in the process of packaging, doing a press kit for the artists that are currently performing here on Sunday nights," says Bowie, who is looking to turn them into opening acts for venues such as H-Town Arena Theatre (7326 Southwest Freeway) and Verizon Wireless Theater (520 Texas Avenue). "So more people can be aware of the type of talent that we have here on Sunday nights," he explains.
He's also looking for another headliner to rustle into the stable. But if you decide to venture out to the Red Cat on Sundays, make sure you come correct with your best stuff. This isn't American Idol -- people are actually looking to see if you can sing!
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