Illinois Idol

Millstadt talent shows breathe farm air into an increasingly streamlined pop life

Going in, smart money is on either the Travoltas or contortionist juggler Book Kennison, if only for the uniqueness of their acts (everyone else sings solo). But whereas the Travoltas sound strikes a sour note in agri-land, Kennison, who juggles, spins plates and twists his seemingly jointless legs over his head -- at the same time -- seems like a surefire winner.

But it is not to be for the young St. Charles phenom. The all-Illinois panel taps the fifteen-year-old Crespo, also from Mascoutah, for the $500 and plum Silver Dollar City (prearranged Branson venue) gig, which will take place sometime in 2003.

Either way, choosing between a singer and a juggling contortionist is "comparing apples and oranges," says Kennison's father, Richard.

"He [Book] didn't take it hard," reveals Richard. "I had counseled him that talent shows are pretty impossible [to judge] -- even when you're comparing singers to singers."

Over shortnecks of Stag at the band's gig at Frederick's Music Lounge, three nights after the "Shining Stars" finale, the Travoltas' Williamson concedes that Crespo possesses some prize-worthy pipes. But had Ernst won, he says, "there would have been fistfights."

Here at Fred's, where they're opening for the Sayers, the Travoltas sound a gajillion times better than they did on the Hee-Haw stage. The crowd is minuscule, but hey, it's a school night, rationalizes lanky lead singer John Clements as the band launches into a leave-it-all-on-the-floor rocker that lives up to the stylistic moniker "punk-infused country."

"That's rock & roll, ain't it?" beckons Clements. "These guys just wear cowboy hats all the fuckin' time."

Ah yes -- witty, spontaneous stage banter, as far removed from American Idol's canned heat as humanly possible. And that's plenty good enough for the Travoltas and their lovely wives, all of whom are old enough to remember Alex and Ellen's moment and still have plenty of respect for fateful encounters at Dirt Cheap.

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