In an industry that’s faced one existential crisis after another at least since the advent of file sharing back at the turn of this century, one element remains absolutely unalterably central. At the core of all popular music stands the human voice. You can process it, you can multitrack it, you can even autotune it, but without the distinctive, fingerprint-like uniqueness of the individual voice, you might have a track, but you won’t have a song. And, with only the small handful of exceptions that prove the rule, you definitely won’t have a hit. Nothing drives the emotional attachment that makes music stick in your mind like a hauntingly recognizable individual voice. From Aretha to Beyoncé, and from Sinatra to Drake, it’s the voice that makes the impressions that we can’t and don’t want to shake.
Take this unchallenged organic fact of musical life and put it onstage, unadorned, accompanied by an acoustic instrument, and you’ve got the approach favored by Mendeleyev Allan Blitz, the talented young singer/songwriter whose upcoming virtual concert from the Marjorie Luke Theatre premieres on Friday, September 18, at luketheatre.org. The artist, who grew up in Santa Barbara, has developed an international following over the last several years thanks to the way his creamy baritone wraps the listener in a rich, layered sound experience. It’s a voice that, once you’ve heard it, is impossible to forget.
Take that same fact — the primacy of the human voice — and costume it, make it up, light it, and produce it until it gleams and glows with every gimmick known to contemporary network television, and you’ve got NBC’s long-running vocal competition series The Voice, now entering its 19th season. Combine the two, however, and you get one hell of a story.
When Mendeleyev got the call that he would be a contestant in season 17 of The Voice, this barefoot child of Santa Barbara’s Mountain Drive hippie community had never seen the show. Throwing caution to the social media wind, he accepted the challenge, delivering one of the most memorable (and YouTube popular) Blind Auditions in the entire history of the show, and earning the program’s highest audition accolade, the “four chair turn.” This moment is the show’s equivalent of baseball’s grand slam home run, and it means that all four of the coaches will vie for the artist’s presence on their team. In a world where all the power ordinarily resides with the big celebrities, for once, after a four-chair turn on The Voice, it’s the newcomer who does the choosing.
Mendeleyev chose John Legend, and Legend in turn chose … 15-year-old Preston Howell in the show’s “Battle Round,” effectively ending Mendeleyev’s run before it really got started. Nevertheless, that four-chair moment revealed his talent to a huge audience, even as Legend’s decision revealed what many of those audience members thought was his poor judgment. Hearing Mendeleyev talk about the experience, one gets a slight sense of the personal earthquake this kind of sudden fame can set off. I’ll let him describe it, or try to: “I wish I could explain what happens to your cell phone overnight” he told me. “It was absolutely wild.” Although that wild ride may have been cut short, Mendeleyev has no regrets about the way he handled the competition or the fame it has brought him, saying that when he realized how slick the program’s production values would be, he did everything he could to “strip it down.” “I was the only one to opt out of playing with the band” that season, he said, and, as one of the program’s only baritones, he had his own lane.
That’s exactly where he’ll be in the new show from the Luke, the first of a series directed by Rod Lathim that will go on to include such other Santa Barbara performers as Jackson Gillies and Tariqh Akoni. Mendeleyev will also be releasing more of his music on Spotify in the weeks to come. In the meantime, you can follow his YouTube channel, MendeleyevMusic, and, whatever you might be sitting on, prepare to turn it around.
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