CARIBOU, Maine — As performers waited behind the stage curtain before the start of the 2011 Northern Star competition on Feb. 27, one of the judges articulated the high standards expected of the next singing sensation.
The next star needs to own the stage, possess ample God-given talent, have the skill to make the song being performed his or her own, and above all, “they need to bring it,” said judge Samantha Boutot.
It turns out that 19-year-old DeShawn Lamarr Russell exceeded all of those expectations during his performances at the Caribou Performing Arts Center.
Russell owned the stage and captivated the audience with his exceptional octave-spanning, pitch-defying vocals to first “Ave Maria” by Beyonce Knowles,and then “You” by Jesse Powell to clinch the top soloist title in the region.
“Talk about raw talent,” said judge Dan Ladner. “Not only do you hit that high note on the ‘Ave Maria’ once, but you hit it perfectly three times and that’s unbelievable.”
What many in the audience found to be truly unbelievable, however, was that Russell was turned away when he auditioned back in 2007 for “American Idol,” the popular FOX TV show after which Northern Idol is modeled.
“I’m thinking that ‘American Idol’ should do a recount right about now,” said event co-host Jason Parent, whose comment was met by resounding applause from the audience.
Originally from Bridgeport, Conn., and currently living in Limestone while he attends the Loring Job Corps Center, Russell felt incredible after winning the title.
“I feel so great, it’s like a blessing,” he said.
The judges, on the other hand, seemed to have felt blessed to witness Russell’s performance. Two of them remarked it was a privilege to hear him sing.
After Russell stunned the crowd with his performance of “You,” judge Jason Anderson couldn’t seem to say enough about the teenage vocalist.
“I just heard every single one of my favorite R&B artists from like 1961 until now in that performance. … You are Luther Vandross incarnate,” Anderson told Russell. “You worked an audience without lifting a finger and you make it look so effortless.”
But Russell wasn’t alone at the top of the world Sunday night. Siblings Gabrielle Sirois, 16, and Christian, 13, of Drummond, New Brunswick, won the group competition and were crowned Northern Star United.
According to the brother-sister duo, the pair spent a full week preparing for their performance and any audience member could attest to the fact that it certainly paid off.
The two chose to sing the song “I Believe in You” by Il Divo — a song that their mother, Sylvie, said means a lot to them. It must have meant a lot to the judges as well.
“If that wasn’t harmonizing, I don’t know what is,” said Boutot. “You both have that star quality that people look for; you have it all — the matching outfits, the voices, everything.”
Anderson even called upon the duo’s parents in the middle of the event, saying they must be “two of the proudest parents in the world.”
Another group called The Triplets, which featured a pair of twins among the threesome, also drew praise from the judges for their harmonizing. Their upbeat melodics of “We’ll Be a Dream” by We the King and Demi Lovato left Anderson literally speechless.
When he gathered his words a few moments later, Anderson told the group, “That was just awesome, that really was so cool.”
Ladner was equally impressed with the trio, which is made up of 14-year-old twin sisters Naomi and Nokomi Ouellette of Lac Baker, New Brunswick, and Arianne Richards, 12, of Clair, New Brunswick.
“I love harmony, and when I hear women’s three-part voices like that in harmony, it’s like an angelic choir … and that’s probably the closest I’ll ever get,” he joked.
Ladner was so impressed with The Triplets that he made up a word for their complementary voices, “blendation,” describing how one voice didn’t overpower the others and the three performed in beautiful harmony.
Much of the evening’s show-stopping talent came from New Brunswick, including 18-year-old Megan Ouellette of Clair.
“I can see ‘it’ in my students, I can see ‘it’ in my colleagues and I can see ‘it’ in you; it’s with you and it’s never going away,” Anderson told the teen after her performance of “Oh Darling” by The Beatles. “What a soulful interpretation of that song; Paul McCartney’s won just about every award on every continent in every galaxy, and you gave him a run for his money,” Anderson added. “That was tremendous.”
Based on her rendition of the Beatles classic, the audience voted Megan Ouellette to the top three soloists, where she joined other people’s choice contestant Russell and the judge’s pick, Robert Helstrom, 59, of Washburn.
The first performer of the evening, Helstrom sang “At this Moment” by Billy Verna and set the bar high for his competition.
“You really came out running full bore, didn’t you?” Anderson asked the 59-year-old band director of the Fort Fairfield Middle/High School. “That was fantastic — great presence, great feeling, raw emotion and you had a great personal take on that song.”
Despite Helstrom’s obvious talent, showmanship and natural ability, many in the audience will remember his professionalism above all because of his response to a technical glitch.
For his final-three performance, Helstrom was slated to sing the song “God Bless the Child.” Instead, the song “Desperado” was cued up.
Without missing a beat or even batting an eyelash, Helstrom dove right into the ballad with passion, soul and quite a range.
“I was impressed that with your baritone voice and you were able to get up into that tenor range,” Ladner said.
It wasn’t until the second judge spoke with Helstrom that the error was identified.
“So you were supposed to sing ‘God Bless the Child,’ but then that song started playing so you decided to say, ‘What the heck, I’ll sing this one?’” Boutot asked Helstrom.
“It seemed like the thing to do,” Helstrom responded with a smile.
Boutot told Helstrom not only that he was awesome, but that it seemed to her that performing was what he was born to do.
“I thought this show was unbelievably good,” said Claudia Stevens of the United Way of Aroostook. “We have had many comments on the show as it being the best one ever but we hear that every year. Just when we think it is as good as it gets, it gets better.”
According to Stevens, the final figures on just how much fundraising was accomplished for the United Way through the Northern Star competitions this year were not quite finished being tabulated, but will surpass $28,000.
This is the second year of the Northern Star competition, formerly Aroostook Idol, and the event continues to gain popularity, much like 2010 Northern Star Isabelle Pelletier, 13, of St. Jacques, New Brunswick. Within the past year Pelletier has gone on to win Maritime Idol in Canada, and she performed five 45-minute shows in Europe — two in Switzerland and three in France.
While Northern Star continues to be a great opportunity for the United Way of Aroostook to raise funds, it also presents United Way officials with an opportunity to travel throughout The County to the areas that they serve and let people know what the organization is doing to help people in their communities, something Russell and the Sirois siblings will be a part of for 2011.
“In the coming year United Way will be asking our winners to be present at a few of our events, but they will receive a lot of requests from the public for various singing opportunities that they will pick and choose what they want to participate in,” Stevens said.
In anticipating the 2012 Northern Star competition, Stevens predicted it would “continue to grow next year and I anticipate that we will have more groups participating.”