AN EVENING WITH OSCAR
(At Dan's House of Blues)
Okay, let's get one thing out of the way first. Anyone who has ever been to a karaoke night, or especially a karaoke bar for the first time, knows just what to expect from it everafterward: every night a few workman-like performances, a few surprises, a few disappointments, some unintentional hilarity if you're lucky and sometimes - a performance of such professional skill, passion and sincere involvement that, rather than enabling you to simply enjoy the singer, preoccupies your mind with thoughts like, "Where did they find this person?"..."Why isn't this person doing this on radio, television and in concert halls?"... or even, "I wonder how long before this person IS doing that - and I'll be able to say at a party, 'I remember when...'"!
What we don't expect, however, and probably should, is the existence of a more exclusive venue for karaoke singers who are a cut above the usual fare. Such a place is Dan's House of Blues. Now, although the House of Blues is not usually associated with karaoke, it turns out to be a wonderful place to showcase a "karaoke headliner" if you will. Created by its namesake, rocker and bluesman Dan Molloy, best known for his portrayal of Eric Clapton in the notable tribute band, Strange Brew, and designed by his equally talented wife Doreen (a wonderful singer as well as a professional psychic), Dan's House of Blues is really a multimedia studio dressed up to look like a really cool night club. Hidden at a secret underground location, it seduces you to excited anticipation of something great to come, with its odd lighting schemes and engulfing reds and blacks. To the imagination that might seem stark but, lit and decorated as it is, it creates an amazingly comfortable vibe and gives the feeling retrospectively of being almost self-luminescent. Even on stage the drums are flanked by twin faux torches. Only a small studio audience seated at tables before the stage gets to take all of this in while the world at large tunes in to their increasingly popular live webcasts.
Into this sudden transport to another world entered Oscar. Puerto Rican born and now residing in Irvington, New Jersey, Oscar Estremera is a fresh, handsome young 28-year-old singer with a keen facility for measuring the power, intensity and sharpness of his voice that most male singers only master when they're a decade older.
Hosted by Mary Ann Castro, the show began with an interview and profile that illustrated his musical roots, such as music from the boy band era and an homage to his hero, Marc Anthony. His manner was confident and determined if not somewhat innocently cocky.
Such a disposition can be offputting to some, to others perhaps a guiltily delicious self-imposed set-up for any performer who doesn't deliver the goods... But Oscar does.
Opening with "Contra la Corriente", Oscar treats this salsa number to a voice that borders on edge, yet remains pure and smooth. If, as a man he is self-assured, as a singer he is self-possessed. In fact, restraint was the key word for the evening's performance. That can be a good thing but only at the right moments and it is here where the venue falls short.
Just because there's no live band doesn't mean that the prerecorded track doesn't need to be as loud as one. Remember that Oscar is using his vocal instrument live. It is frustratingly obvious that there's a tiger here but nobody's opening the cage. Whenever the adrenaline pumps through him during a particularly emotional passage, his voice attempts to express it with power and passion, only to be reeled in by him at the realization that he's outpacing the track's tempo because of the stereo-system-at-a-barbecue volume level of the music. This mars most of the first half of the show.
What enhances the show throughout are Oscar's perfect phrasing and emotional involvement in his performance. No textbook index of cliched vocal techniques being trundled out here; only a keen intertwining of his instincts as a singer and his empathetic symbiosis with the song.
Next up was the ballad, "Love is All", as Oscar began to hit his stride. Ballads were the order of much of the evening and it's easy to see why he favors them so much. Here Oscar's notes soared, even if you could tell that he wanted to free them from their tether. Somehow, on "Si te Vas", the next number, his control-room-imposed shackles seemed to benefit the material as his vocal balancing act became a curious mix of power and restraint.
In terms of his choices of material, few numbers were memorable from the standpoint of being exceptional compositions. Most of it was standard fare bouncing mainly between salsa numbers and ballads. Much like the film, ";Glengarry Glen Ross";, the performance was more the focal point than the material which, when strung together, had a kind of cookie cutter assembly line feel to it.
The last song of the first set, "La Quiero Morir", was a change of pace. Although introduced as merengue, it was mostly salsa with a couple of well-placed merengue-flavored structures.
The second interview saw even Oscar at a loss for words from the overwhelming outpouring of praise from fans tuning in and discussing the show in the chat room. Hostess Mary Ann Castro kept the precedings bouyant and lively while whetting our appetites for more.
The second set was an absolute delight. Kicking off with "Presocia", a more relaxed tone took hold. Light and elegant, Oscar created an atmosphere as smooth and captivating as a luxury tropical sea cruise by moonlight. After dedicating this beautiful tune to his homeland it became clear that Oscar was aware of what he needed to do.
Standing to the fore of the crimson stage, flames behind him and looking like an expensive Poland Spring ad with his water bottle clutched in his right hand, he now was clearly directing sound engineer Mike St. Pierre to bring the track up as needed. Now Oscars ship could sail. On "My Baby You", his voice crested majestically on the middle eight and on "Nadie Como Ella" he was outstanding.
After a couple of ballads more, Oscar took a prolonged swig of water and a Zen-like moment of focus and concentration for the final and most difficult song, "Yo Si Me Enamore". Although, on a few of the earlier songs, an occasional note or two went slightly astray, on this tune a real sense of mastery prevailed.
All of his best qualities, that were variously employed before, now all came together to take home this prize. Like an expert mountain climber showing you how it's done, Oscar traversed and negotiated every difficult twist and turn of a challenging note scheme, nailing every one of them and claiming the summit with a rousing crescendo. It was his. And then, of course, so too were we.