Local singer Elise Testone embraces independence after ‘American Idol’
By Ballard LesemannSpecial to The Post and Courier | Wednesday, February 13, 2013
What: Elise Testone, live and unplugged with special guests, presents “A Whole Lotta Love”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Charleston Music Hall, 37 John St.
For more info: www.charlestonmusichall.com
The last time Charleston-based vocalist and songwriter Elise Testone performed a major concert in town, it was as part of the American Idol Live! showcase at the North Charleston Coliseum.
In her first major hometown concert since her official “Idol” duties ceased, the smoky-voiced entertainer will present a Valentine’s Day program titled “A Whole Lotta Love” at the Charleston Music Hall.
“The American Idol Live! tour was fantastic, and I loved it,” Testone said. “While a few other people complained that they were tired, it was easy for me because I had worked hard in Charleston for years, setting up shows and playing every week.
“To do the tour seemed so smooth, even though we had to work every day. When it was over, I wanted to keep communicating with the fans while I started to get my own stuff ready to go,” she said.
With a newly assembled backing band and a handful of special local guests, Testone seems eager to step into a non-“Idol” role as a well-seasoned singer-songwriter and bandleader operating on her own terms.
“I was thinking about moving, but when I came back to Charleston after the ‘Idol’ tours, I realized I didn’t want to live anywhere else,” she said. “Now, I have a lot more time to focus on a bunch of songs that I’ve written. I have some new songs, but a lot of my later material comes from song ideas I’ve been working on for years. I had all of these ideas in my head, but I didn’t have the opportunity to embellish them with a band. They’re starting to take on a new life with new arrangements and harmonies.”
Testone grew up in Kinnelon, N.J., before moving to South Carolina to attend Coastal Carolina University to study music. She arrived in Charleston in 2006 and immediately began performing with a variety of musicians in the rock, funk and jazz side of the local scene. She earned a strong reputation for her impressive range and soulful style.
In July 2011, Testone auditioned to become a contestant on Season 11 of “American Idol.” She won a spot alongside 24 up-and-coming male and female vocalists. Through the spring of 2012, Testone worked her way through the rounds, finally taking sixth place.
“I really never lost myself in any of that stuff,” Testone said. “I’m still the same person, only with a lot more experience.”
This winter, Testone enlisted some of “the most reliable and talented musicians I know,” as she puts it, to become part of her official band. Some of her new bandmates are longtime colleagues, including guitarist Wallace Mullinax and percussionist Jack Burg, both of whom played with Testone in the late 2000s in a local funk/rock combo called the Freeloaders.
“I sang with my friends in the Freeloaders for six years, but we never practiced more than twice,” she recalls. “We just played out at local clubs all of the time and had fun.
“With this new band, we’re actually rehearsing three days a week. We’ll be as ready as possible for any concert or recording session.”
Mullinax, who plays in local jam/fusion combo the Dead 27’s, made a guest appearance on “American Idol” in April as Testone’s backing guitarist during a rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love.”
The lineup also features bassist Ben Wells (of the Jazz Artists of Charleston), keyboardist Gerald Gregory (also of JAC), cellist Lonnie Root (of the Entropy Ensemble), drummer Daniel Crider (of the Dead 27’s) and backing vocalists Shannon Cook and Diane Fabiano.
Saxophonists Michael Quinn and Simon Harding and other musical guests will be on hand at the Music Hall, as well.
“I have a few things on the books, but right now I’m committed to this band that I’ve put together,” Testone said. “Everyone is into it, and we’re already booking tours for the summer. I wasn’t sure how things were going to pan out, but I’ve had a loose plan and a confident feeling.
“Having that platform and exposure (on ‘Idol’), and getting people’s attention were more than I could ask for,” she said. “But I’m grateful that I didn’t win in a way because I know that I’m not a commercial pop star, and I wouldn’t be happy in a lifestyle like that. So to be free from some of those contracts and have an artistic decision in what I do next is really a blessing.”
Billed as “A Whole Lotta Love,” Testone’s Valentine’s Day set will feature 12 of her originals as well as a handful of classic tunes by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Bonnie Raitt, the Jackson Five, Adele and other artists.
“I’ve been in so many different band settings over the years, and I think their styles will be reflected in the show,” Testone said. “They’ll vary between folk, rock and blues sounds with some jazz and Americana-ish sounds. They’re all tied together with my bluesy soul style, and I think they flow well. I want the individual personalities of my bandmates and the chemistry between us all to show through.”