Friday, July 13, 2007

Words like dreadful, awful, terrible, ghastly, wretched, pathetic and horrible were never spoken.

My right arm was never raised to end a performance.

And I drove no one to anger.

In my debut as a judge at an “American Idol”-type contest Wednesday night at ESPN Zone, I wasn’t Simon Cowell or Randy Jackson.

I was Paula Abdul for heaven’s sake. Minus the prescription pain-killers, the myriad makeup work and the um, well, Botox treatments, of course. s

For the third consecutive year, the Washington Nationals played host to “Anthem Idol,” a contest to determine who would sing the national anthem at a September home game. I was part of a three-judge panel who selected the winner, Samuel Waters, 14, of Falls Church.

Even though I was technically sitting in Simon’s chair, my performance in his shoes was woeful.

After each of the 42 performances, the same things left my mouth, things that I had heard Paula say each Wednesday night for six years.

Everybody did a nice job, I would say. Everybody had great stage presence, I would add. Everybody sounded great, I would stress.

Before delving into the competition, some background: I watch “American Idol.” I don’t start watching until the final 24 singers are chosen, because I don’t need to see the bad singers. And to brag, I have a knack for identifying early on who will be among the finalists. Two years ago, I immediately selected Katharine McPhee as the top female (she was). This year, I pegged Jordin Sparks early on. And she won the grand prize, defeating Blake Lewis, aka Beat Box Boy.

With that in mind, when one of my editors pitched the “Anthem Idol” story idea to me last week, I said yes on one condition: I should be a judge. That would provide for a better story. A few e-mails later, and I was on the panel with Tom Davis, the Nationals’ entertainment coordinator, and Angela Calo, a local singer.

This is what I expected: A bunch of little children. A slew of fingernails-on-the-chalkboard performances. A hard time keeping myself from providing Simon-like commentary and an easy time selecting the winner.

What I got: Singers of all ages. Few bad performances. And plenty of impressive talent.

The 42 contestants — about twice as many as I expected — performed songs made famous (or not so famous) by the likes of Alicia Keys and John Legend, Faith Hill and the Temptations, Beyonce and Marie Osmond as well as songs from former “American Idol”-turned chart-toppers Chris Daughtry and Kelly Clarkson and something called “Hannah Montana” (a TV show, I think). The song selections surprised me a little bit. I thought there would be more current tunes; I’m not a big gospel guy at all so those songs were almost entirely unrecognizable.

But despite the song choice, here’s the thing: It wasn’t that bad. Even if I wanted to rip a performance (which wasn’t allowed), I would have been hard-pressed.

In the first round, each contestant was supposed to sing for 30 seconds. The field was then narrowed to five finalists, who would sing the entire national anthem.

Naturally, before the competition, I thought choosing the finalists would be easy. Wrong. The judges marked each singer on a 1-to-10 scale. There were no 10s (I’m not that easy to impress), but there were a couple of 9s, a few 8s and a ton of 7s. When the final singer finished, I had nine finalists.

After a brief discussion with the two other judges the five finalists were Waters, Regan Hall, Tony Dennis, Christina Clark and Tiffany Terry.

What I wanted to see from the performances was simplicity. As the washed-up Billy Joel said at the Super Bowl earlier this year, it’s a tough song to sing as it is; don’t try to reinvent the wheel. I thought two of the finalists were a little over the top so I eliminated them from consideration. That left three, including Hall, 10, and Waters.

Waters won in a runaway, which included a vote of those in attendance.

In the first round, he was scheduled to go second but when the event’s organizer saw him walk in, a complete and utter bundle of nerves, she asked him whether he wanted to go later. He immediately said yes, was 29th in line and sang Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up.”

The 14-year old from Falls Church, whose previous anthem experience consists of singing at his brother’s Little League baseball games, immediately put both hands on his head when he was announced as the winner.

“I didn’t think I had done well at all — that’s why I was shocked,” said Waters, who was accompanied by his camera-toting father and about 10 friends and relatives.

Waters will sing the anthem at the Nationals’ Sept. 22 game against Philadelphia.

As for me, my “Idol” judging now will consist of being at home in front of no audience and no microphone.

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