Austin Jenckes

His magic moment

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

I’d like to be able to say that, during the years Austin Jenckes spent living and playing music at most of the venues in Bellingham, I saw him play a hundred times and knew one day he was going to be something.

Although that makes for a decent, if predictable narrative, it does not have the benefit of also being true. Truth is, I didn’t know him while he lived here. At best, I can say I knew he had a reputation for being a genial dude with a powerful voice. When I heard that he’d moved to Nashville two years ago after graduating from Western Washington University, I thought, “Good for him,” wished him well and assumed I’d hear about him again when he made his way through town or on the off chance he’d somehow be one of the exceedingly rare few who managed to distinguish themselves in the overcrowded rat race that is Music City.

Imagine my surprise when I head that Jenckes had been chosen as a contestant on NBC’s blockbuster, star-studded, sing-off competition, The Voice. But the surprises were only just beginning as, for several weeks, armed with his late father’s guitar, the genial dude with the powerful voice defied elimination, living to sing another day.

Of course, it wasn’t just the guitar—or his big ginger beard, trademark hats and glasses or his wide grin—that earned Jenckes the opportunity to continue on in the competition. It was that voice, the one that’s more than a little country-tinged and a whole lot soulful, along with the sheer power Jenckes brings to bear when he uses it, that helped him advance from week to week.

When Jenckes took the stage for his first performance during The Voice’s blind audition round, his rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” was almost deceptive. He gets off to a decent start, nothing to be ashamed of, but also nothing that suggested he was going to stand out from the hungry pack of performers who preceded and would follow. In fact, eyes darting around a bit, he almost looked kind of nervous, and as the clock was winding down on his song, his stage time and his chance to move on, it seemed as if Jenckes would be one of the many who tried, but just couldn’t quite get his foot in the door.

And then it happened.

If you watch closely, you can see it—it’s the moment when Jenckes seems to think, “Screw it. I’m just going to sing my guts out and what happens, happens,” digs deep and belts out the final lines like a man who has nothing to lose. And lest you think I’m imagining all this, all you have to do is watch the reaction of the reality show’s panel of celebrity judges, as their hands slam down on their buttons, two of their chairs spin around and, a few minutes later, Jenckes spot on Blake Shelton’s team was assured.

It was a phenomenon that repeated itself during Jenckes entire run on the show. The next week, during a head-to-head matchup with another Voice contestant, Jenckes never seems like he’s floundering, but the other performer’s vocals a little smoother, he’s a little more polished in his delivery and it seems for the briefest of seconds that Jenckes’ reality-show musical career might be over before it had even truly begun.

Then it happened again.

As before, Jenckes dug deep, sang with abandon (this time, it was the Bee Gees and “To Love Somebody”), and by the time the song was through, I’m pretty sure everyone in the studio, audience and judges alike knew who wouldn’t be going home that night.

This moment, the one in which Jenckes, appearing to forget the larger-than-life studio, the outsized celebrity judges and the millions of people watching, just becomes a guy with his dad’s guitar, his raw passion and that rough-edged but still soulful voice who just wants to connect—really connect—with his audience, that’s when the magic happens. And that’s when Jenckes reveals himself as a performer to be reckoned with.

Sadly, Jenckes run on The Voice was to be an abbreviated one. After making the show’s top 10, he was voted off the island and sent back to Nashville. It could be argued, if one cares about such things, that Jenckes never really ran out of magic moments. Rather, he fell victim to the underdog status he’d carried with him since the beginning of the competition and a Twitter voting scheme that gave preference to East Coast voters over those of Jenckes’ largely West Coast fan base.

So, the next reality television champ he is not to be, but Jenckes has taken the loss in stride, booking a string of dates that will bring him back to his old stomping grounds in the Pacific Northwest. Along with playing a three-show stint at Seattle’s Crocodile Cafe, the bearded ginger will take the stage at his old alma mater, playing at WWU’s most ideal place to see a show, the Performing Arts Center Mainstage.

It figures to be a happy homecoming for Jenckes, who will be joined by Polecat and Cody Beebe. And if it’s magic you’re looking for, you won’t have to wait long. It’ll happen.

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