For current American Idol contestant Erika Van Pelt, last week moving into the top twelve, handling the pressure of performing in front of an audience of millions should be a walk in the park.
After all, her very first gig with the Sultans of Swing, the Martha’s Vineyard based event band most commonly seen at weddings and summer events, was a Nantucket wedding in which she sang two hours of overtime as a storm rolled in over the horizon.
Talk about a high-pressure situation.
“She was a little nervous,” Sultans musical director Ryan Clauch recalled. “I mean, she’s confident, but she wanted to do a good job.”
There was no need to worry, though.
“The clients were just loving her,” said Mr. Clauch. “It was a really long day for her, but she was a champion.”
Ms. Van Pelt began performing with the Sultans three years ago, hired by director Jerry Bennett on the recommendation of band member Jeffrey Thomas (like Ms. Van Pelt, Mr. Thomas is a native Rhode Islander).
“Jeffrey, our singer, said to me ‘Jerry, you gotta check this kid out,’” Mr. Bennet recalled in a phone conversation with the Gazette.
“I think she’s such a great talent and a great person,” he said, citing Ms. Van Pelt’s ability to connect with a crowd — be it regional high school juniors at their prom or summer diners at the Wharf — as one of her many strengths.
“My favorite is when she goes into the crowd and does What’s Up, the 4 Non Blondes song,” Mr. Bennett continued. “She takes off her high heels and goes off barefoot, right into the middle of group.”
But it is Ms. Van Pelt’s voice, praised by American Idol judges for its unique tone, that carries the day.
“It’s sultry, salty, passionate, soulful, uplifting,” said Mr. Clauch. “I don’t have enough nice things to say.”
Last week, Ms. Van Pelt blew away the Idol judges with her rendition of Whitney Houston’s I Believe in You and Me (the performance gave Jennifer Lopez “goosies,” while Randy Jackson described it as “absolutely amazing”).
“What she brings to the table is extremely versatile,” Mr. Clauch said. “She would sing Ave Maria in church and do jazz during cocktail hour.”
“Some of the judges have said, you know, don’t be afraid to let it all out — and I think that’s true. Some of those other singers on the show tend to oversoul. [Erika] has a coolness about what she does, and she should maintain that while [still] pushing the envelope,” he offered as armchair advice.
And the best way to push that envelope?
“She can rap,” Mr. Clauch said matter-of-factly. “In the middle of a song she’ll superimpose a rap from the mid-90s. . . . maybe she’s going to bust it out.”
“I hope she does,” he said. “She’s really good at it; she has a lot of rhythm in her voice.”
Sultans road manager Patrick Joyce agreed.
“No one’s seen [that] on American Idol yet — I’m hoping she does something,” he said.
“It’s awesome hearing her perform,” said Mr. Joyce. “I like feeling the energy from the band and from the crowd — it’s just this magic moment that you get. That’s really why we all do it.”
Erika Van Pelt returns to the competition tonight, March 14, when American Idol airs at 8 p.m.