A Whole Lotta Elise Love

Devin Grant

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last decade or so, you must have at least a passing knowledge of what American Idol is. The popular televised singing contest has earned huge ratings and given the pop music world the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. While winning the contest obviously has its perks, there have been just as many runners-up that have gone on to find fame and fortune.


Quick: name who won AI the year that Jennifer Hudson was a runner-up...


I didn't think so. And while Hudson didn't win the big AI prize, she probably isn't losing too much sleep over it. If she does have any qualms about not winning, she can always talk about it to the Oscar statuette she won for her performance in Showgirls.


The reason I bring this up is because this past week found one runner-up from the latest season of AI—Charleston's own Elise Testone—putting on a special Valentine's Day performance at the Charleston Music Hall. Backed by a 12-piece band, Testone treated a sellout crowd to two sets of music that mixed classic rock and R&B tunes with Testone's own compositions. With it being Valentine's Day, Testone could have taken the easy way out and performed schmaltzy love songs for a couple of hours, but that isn't her style.


The singer-songwriter took to the stage with guitarist Wallace Mullinax and dove straight into a lovely cover of Sam Cooke's "Touch the Hem of His Garment." By the end of the song the pair had been joined by the rest of the band, which included drummer Daniel Crider, percussionist Jack Burg, bassist Ben Wells, keyboardist Gerald Gregory, cellist Lonnie Root, and saxophone players Michael Quinn and Simon Harding, as well as backing singers Shannon Cook and Diane Fabiano. The stage was festooned with candelabras, chandeliers, white ostrich feathers, and other frilly and decadent props. Testone wore a simple black dress and a pair of red shoes my wife probably would have killed to own. 


Much of the first set was devoted to Testone's own songs, although she did deliver a great and unexpected cover of Gillian Welch's "Tear My Stillhouse Down." Testone mentioned that Welch herself had played the Charleston Music Hall a couple of years back, and cited that fact as part of the reason she chose the song to cover. During the first set Testone also welcomed to the stage David Bankston, who was her vocal professor when she attended Coastal Carolina University. Both musicians seemed to get a bit emotional during their duet, but not so much that they couldn't playfully make jokes at one another's expense. The set ended with a smoldering cover of the Smokey Robinson-penned "Who's Loving You," which was made popular by The Jackson 5. 


After a short intermission the band kicked into the second set, and things started moving away from the unplugged performance that had been promised in advertisements for the show. Believe me—I'm not complaining about that. Anyone who has ever seen the adrenaline-fueled R&B reviews Testone used to put on at the Pour House prior to getting the AI gig will tell you that the woman can rock out. She did just that as she performed more originals, dazzling the crowd with some genuinely great songwriting skills. I hope when Testone finally gets to record the album she dreams of making, that she'll go with all originals. Her compositions are good enough to stand on their own. With that said, I was still delighted to hear Root start sawing out a familiar riff that was first introduced to the world four decades ago courtesy of Jimmy Page's guitar.


Testone's performance of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" on last season's AI was one of the show's defining moments. Even the show's judges agreed that Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant would have approved of the performance. At the Charleston Music Hall, Testone started the classic cover slow, up until the point where Crider nailed John Bonham's climactic drum flourish, leading to Mullinax recreating Page's famous guitar solo while Testone wailed with an echo effect on her microphone. It was the perfect peak for the show and had the audience on their feet. Elise returned to the stage for one last song, a cover of local band Dangermuffin's "Homestead." 


Throughout the show both Testone and her band were the picture of professionalism. Even when feedback was causing problems during one song, the musicians pressed on and overcame the technical difficulties. In the end, Testone demonstrated that she intends to make the most of the exposure she's received by being a part of AI. However it is also evident that Testone isn't about to let being an AI contestant define who she is. For those that missed last Thursday's show, Testone will be opening for blues legend B.B. King when he performs at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on April 23.