They gather in bars and lounges across the valley, typically after the sun sets and the day’s obligations are over, ready to let loose the golden-voiced alter-egos living within them.
Up onstage, the words they sing don’t necessarily belong to them, not technically anyway, but they make the songs their own. They’ve got the pipes, they’ve got the passion, and they’ve got the pluck to perform in front of strangers: They are the karaoke stars of the Flathead Valley.
And on April 22, a dozen of these karaoke faithful will compete for the top spot in the first The 406 Voice karaoke competition.
Twelve people have qualified for the finals on the 22nd, taking place at the Flathead Lake Inn and Suites. Prospective contestants belted it out at the Scoreboard in Kalispell, the Spinnaker Bar and Grill in Lakeside, and the Silver Bullet near Columbia Falls during earlier rounds of competition that began on March 23.
Greg Jordan, the karaoke DJ organizing the contest, said he wanted to put together an event for singers to show off their skills, but he also wanted it to mean something more than a run-of-the-mill evening at the bar.
“People have contests all the time and it’s just a bar atmosphere totally,” Jordan said. “So I thought, ‘How can we make this more of a special event for the karaoke people and how can we benefit a nonprofit at the same time?’”
The result is a karaoke contest benefitting the Flathead Youth Home, a Kalispell home that provides short-term crisis intervention and longer-term group care for kids ages 10-18. The contest winner receives a studio recording and $500 cash.
There’s no lack of talented choices, Jordan said.
“They actually have a feeling in their voice,” he said of many karaoke singers. “So even though they’re not these professional people, they still have a lot of that charisma with them when they sing.”
Pat Campanella, who by day runs boats on Flathead Lake for A Able Fishing Charters in Lakeside, qualified early on in the competition with his rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic, “Simple Man.”
He loves to sing, but Campanella said this event particularly took root in his heart because of its cause.
“My family split up when I was younger — there were times when I wasn’t at home and we weren’t a family unit,” Campanella, 59, said. “A place like (the Flathead Youth Home) would’ve been real nice until families can get their act together and get back together.”
A singer born into a musical family, Campanella likes to sing Creedence Clearwater Revival, Elvis, The Beatles, The Eagles, and many others. He’s a regular performer at the Spinnaker in Lakeside, where karaoke enthusiasts have found a deep sense of community.
“I think it’s just something that for me is a peaceful, kind of a relaxing thing. I just always have songs in my head,” Campanella said. “It’s for anybody who wants to have a good time … It tends to bring people together. It’s something to laugh about if nothing else.”
Erin Black also qualified for the finals and said her home stage at the Spinnaker first started as a way to decompress on Fridays or Saturdays after getting her young children to bed.
“I’m a mom with two little kids, so I go maybe once a month or so because I love to sing,” Black said.
As a kid, Black was usually singing, and mastered the art of recording songs from the radio on tape.
“I would write down all the lyrics and sing them over and over,” Black said.
Other than that, Black performed in choirs and a band for a while when she lived in Chicago. She wandered into the Spinnaker for karaoke one evening and decided to keep going. The crowd there is familiar and supportive, she said.
She prefers music with big, bold voices, like that of Adele, Heart, and Janis Joplin. Black qualified by singing Heart’s epic, “Crazy On You,” and said although her boys might have to listen to her sing all around the house, she’s excited they’ll be able to attend the finals.
“They’ve never seen me sing in public,” she said. “That’s one of the biggest reasons I wanted to do this.”
As for her husband, Brian?
“He doesn’t get to see me sing very often, but when he does get to go, he’s like my biggest fan,” Black said.
Susie Schultz is another member of the regular Spinnaker crew, who, like Black, said that while public speaking makes her feel uncomfortable, she can easily belt out a tune. Karaoke is a place for release and fun, where Schultz can follow up on her choir experiences from college and high school.
A fan of 80s music, Schultz used to sing karaoke regularly when she lived in Kansas but stopped for a while, including during the time she moved to Montana. But a friend who moved to town insisted that Schultz tag along on karaoke night.
“I was hooked,” Schultz, who works at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, said.
Schultz qualified by singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and said Jordan, the karaoke DJ, is the best around because he uses his technology to make singers sound the best they can. In turn, the Spinnaker crew rewards the bravery of picking up that microphone.
“I would encourage those people who want to try but are too scared: Once you do that and get past it, it gets easier,” Campanella said. “Next thing you know, you’re singing away.”