No gong required... A contestant's name is called midway through Scott Gertner's weekly Talent Search night at Cody's, and most in the crowd crane their necks to see what they're in for. But there's no one moving toward the stage for a few minutes in the spotlight. The name is announced again, and still there's no response. The audience and emcee are getting a bit peeved.

Finally, after what seems like half an hour, there's movement back by the bar. A tall, thin figure comes bounding toward the front of the Rice Village club -- the very same tall, thin figure who has just served drinks to a table within a few feet of where she'll be performing. Her shoes come off, as does her apron. She adjusts her black polyester skirt and skips up onto the stage as the prerecorded backing track to some sultry calypso-pop number comes ricocheting out of the sound system. The young woman can't really sing, but her enthusiasm is admirable as she squirms and saunters around the stage in her stocking feet.

Such is the state of the amateur vocalist market in Houston, much of which has probably shown up to wail at Gertner's Wednesday-night event at least once. The singing waitress was by no means the finest performer of the evening. Those honors went to a spunky little diva who goes by the name of Tanya. Her icy-cool, street-hop version of "I Will Survive" was the showstopper, and the enthusiastic audience response earned her top prize ($100 in cash).

Even so, the competition was fierce. Tanya was the narrow winner over an erstwhile Dockers-clad entertainer named Mitch Moses, whose true-to-the-original, super-karaoke rendition of "Desperado" was out of place among his soul and R&B competitors. Nonetheless, Moses delivered his lines with enough feeling to bring a tear to the eye of every urban cowboy in the joint (which, in this largely black crowd, looked to be about one).

Gertner, a graduate of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, has been knocking around the Houston nightclub scene for years now, performing with the likes of Kirk Whalum, Paul English and Everette Harp and touring the region with his own band. After a short stay in Los Angeles, the singer returned to Houston and revamped the talent-search idea he'd first experimented with at the Westin Oaks in the early '90s. It was supposed to be a temporary deal, but the lines outside Cody's convinced him otherwise.

"We get quite a mixture of race in the crowd, and it's a very devout following," says Gertner, whose own sets of slightly jazzy, light R&B bookend the hourlong talent segment. "There are a couple of people who have gone on to perform at the Apollo Theater in New York."

Indeed, since its inception at Cody's a year and a half ago, Scott Gertner's Talent Search has seen some contestants go on to bigger things. One of those is the teen foursome Destiny's Child, which, since performing a Gertner gig, has risen to national prominence with the single "No No No." The girls' self-titled Columbia debut is scheduled for release next week. And Gertner hopes there will be more where that came from.

"It's really turned out to be quite a night," he says. "Probably 85 percent of the talent is really good. It's almost like the Apollo Theater without the Sandman."

Or, on that rare occasion, The Gong Show without the gong.

Release activity... My advance copy of Swingin' from the Fabulous Satellite, the new live CD from the Hadden Sayers Band, arrived accompanied by a brand-new lava lamp and all the fixings necessary for a perfect martini. The rather conspicuous payola came courtesy of Sayers himself, presumably to get me so drunk and disoriented I would see his latest release in a whole new light.

No need. Swingin' is a blustery, exuberant offering from Houston's most generous live act, refreshingly free of the slightest post-performance doctoring (as if the veteran Sayers trio needed studio overdubs). It's always been Sayers's tighter blues-rock originals that shine the brightest on-stage, and the group delivers an exceptional looseness-to-restraint ratio on this 73-minute outing, recorded on a single night at the Satellite Lounge last November. The band will return to the Satellite on Valentine's Day for a show to plug Swingin's release.

And by the way, Had, my dog loved the vermouth.

Etc....Yes, you heard right. Acidic prog-rockers Neural Nectar were one of the 43 Houston applicants slagged by the South by Southwest Music Conference this year. But they do have some good news to report, in the form of new drummer Heath Graham. Last seen in Roach, Graham recently replaced the departed Chris Barber. Guess there's always next year. In the meantime, feel free to welcome Graham into the sticky Nectar fold at the band's Instant Karma show Saturday.

-- Hobart Rowland


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