Chris Mitchell smiles a lot for a bastard. Actually, the thirtysomething Akron singer conceals it well, behind that neighborly grin and the kind of fresh-scrubbed good looks normally reserved for Noxzema commercials. He's more Backstreet Boy than badass, with close-cropped hair and a youthfulness that suggests he still gets carded for beer.
But as a judge at the second annual Akron Idol talent contest at Club Voodoo, Mitchell must bid his good nature goodbye. Here, for two hours every Monday for the next five weeks, he is the competition's Simon Cowell, the incessantly negative Brit judge of American Idol.
"I'm the jerk," Mitchell explains on the first night of competition. A native of Cuyahoga Falls, he has toured with George Clinton and KC & the Sunshine Band, and performed off Broadway. He won the inaugural Akron Idol competition last year, a professional singer flogging the amateurs with his velveteen voice and superb technique. "Everyone's gonna hate me for criticizing just a little bit. Some of the judging might seem like it's a little bit intense, but it's all for everybody's good."
Especially when the performances are so hit-or-miss.
"You picked a song that you just don't quite have the chops to go for. Don't pick a song that's out of your range," Mitchell politely scolds one contestant, who has just finished wrestling with Mariah Carey's "Hero."
Later, after a brunette stumbles through Michelle Branch's "Goodbye to You," Mitchell admonishes: "At one point during the song, you clutched your throat. Girl, if you don't think you can hit the note, bend over, scream it out, do something, but don't ever let us know that it's not quite there."
Mitchell's toughness is warranted: The grand-prize winner will represent the region with an all-expenses-paid trip to the next American Idol tryouts -- in scenic Detroit. Unlike Cowell, he is careful to temper his criticism with plenty of superlatives. "When you're in your bedroom, I bet you sound great," he tells a husky 15-year-old, who is so nervous during his a cappella rendition of "Somewhere Out There" that he forgets the words midway through.
The panel of judges is rounded out by effusive blonde Jen McIntyre, an image consultant for Cleveland's Scott Metzger Salon, and Jason Jarrett, singer for local hard-rockers Corpse Forest. Not surprisingly, their choruses of "Awesome!" after every other performance make Mitchell look even more like a Hitler with highlights in comparison. Weeding out the weak links is a thankless but necessary job.
"Lots of people have auditioned for American Idol, and only two people from around here have made it," says Kim "Hollywood" Diamond, a former pro wrestler who now manages the Voodoo, a dark rock hangout with Warrant in the jukebox and a cowboy-hat-wearing sound guy. "It would be a great plug for the area if we could get somebody from the area to make it to Hollywood and compete."
But so far, the prospects are no more than so-so. Contestants range from teen girls belting out Natalie Imbruglia tunes to middle-aged dudes yowling through one Three Doors Down tune after another.
Most performers have above-average voices -- and a few are stellar -- but many mistakenly select songs far outside their range. Take the black-clad goth girl who offers a mostly growling, guttural rendition of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," in which almost every high note is missed. She's still met with loud howls of approval, a reminder that the audience of around 100 consists mostly of friends and family, grandpas and kid brothers, who hoot for their kin and occasionally chide the rude commentary.
"The judges are drunk!" one bellows after Jarrett knocks over his beer.
The first round is not particularly selective: Twelve out of 15 entrants will advance, making those left behind a painfully exclusive group. The number of survivors will drop drastically in the coming weeks, as the contest divides by genre: pop/rock night (the most popular), followed by showcases dedicated to country, R&B, show tunes, classic rock, and Motown. Through it all, feelings are mostly spared, even if eardrums are not.
"Everybody got up here and gave their best, so no one is going to leave here tonight feeling like they suck," Mitchell says. "Let's try and make a little noise for Akron."