SOUTH BURLINGTON – It wasn’t even a gig, just the crew getting ready for a show that night, but Josh Panda showed up at the Higher Ground on Wednesday afternoon looking like an international rock star.
He entered through the backstage door sporting glittering amber-tinted sunglasses on his boyish face shrouded in wavy locks of dark hair. A zebra-striped coat framed a shirt that, with the top two buttons undone, revealed chains that might have dangled from Tony Manero’s neck in 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever.”
Panda had the right decade, of course: musicians and stage workers were gearing up for “’72 Review,” a tribute to the music of 50 years ago that he and a team of star Vermont musicians would perform that night. Panda, with a dollop of Elton John showmanship and a voice echoing soul titans of that era like Al Green and Marvin Gaye, has always had a bit of retro in it.
He’s also firmly rooted in the moment, and his moment has finally arrived in the spotlight he always seemed made for. Panda will join 55 other acts in “American song contest“, a musical competition which will begin on Monday, March 21 on NBC and will last eight weeks. Panda is set to make its debut on the show at 8 p.m. on Monday April 18, according to the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, which is hosting a watch party that evening.
The Burlington singer-songwriter will represent Vermont in the event which includes one entrant per state, five U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. He enters with no other expectation than that over which he has direct control.
“I expect to be Josh Panda,” he said. “I just have to remember to be myself. I got here because of who I am.
Who he is, said the drummer he played with for more than a decade, is the perfect fit for a splashy TV music competition.
“He’s so perfectly suited to be a ‘rock star.’ He can’t do anything else, and that’s a good thing in this case,” said Steve Hadeka, who has played in various band setups with Panda. since 2011. “It’s the perfect thing for him at the perfect time.
Contemporary of Grace Potter, Anais Mitchell
Panda grew up with gospel music in North Carolina before branching out into jam rock and settling in Burlington around 2008. His big voice and equally outsized personality immediately impressed the local music scene. The man born Joshua Pender seemed destined for the same fame as Vermont contemporaries at that time, including Grace Potter and Anais Mitchellwere heading towards.
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He played local shows, he toured, he built a following, but nothing like the eventual Grammy-nominated Potter or Tony and Grammy winner Mitchell combined. Why is that?
“Circumstances”, according to Panda. A musician can work hard for 10 years, he says, with no guarantee of success. He stepped back to focus on family; he and his wife, Ruthie Hill, have sons aged 4 ½ and 1 ½. He needed gigs such as weddings that bring in solid paychecks.
“These days I do a lot of private events because I have two very hungry boys,” he said.
“A lot of these things are out of our hands,” Hadeka said. He said northern Vermont’s relative isolation can hamper national attention.
The outgoing Panda has felt even more isolated when performances have all but ceased for much of the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is now ready to burst onto a big stage.
Get the word from NBC
Panda received an email months ago expressing interest in him as a possible contestant in the “American Song Contest.”
“I was like, ‘Is this spam?'” Panda said. He soon realized the producers were serious, so he submitted his biography, songs, and videos of his performances.
He knew he was the right person for the contest, but he had no hope. It wasn’t until just before the holidays that Panda got the word.
“I got it and (I said), ‘Holy (expletive), like, no way!'” He was thrilled to find out he would be entering the “American Song Contest,” but said it was weird not being able to share the news with anyone but family and bandmates until NBC announces the contestants this month.
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Panda figured that if he kept putting his music online and on tour, there was a good chance people would finally find him.
“This is the perfect moment in my life. I have acquired a lot of maturity,” said Panda, who is 36. “Being a father gives you so much perspective, so much empathy, so much presence. I’m so much more down to earth.
Channeling Stevie Wonder, Doobie Brothers
Panda is coy about the details of “American Song Contest” — he’s not sure what to say about the show — but he’s also a little unsure himself about how it will work. He’ll be in California for rehearsals, but doesn’t know much beyond that. Panda is to perform a song he co-wrote with Clint Bierman of Vermont band The Grift.
The contest, hosted by musicians Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg, isn’t just about how a contestant sings a la “American Idol” or “The Voice,” another NBC show that helped launch the actress’ career. Burlington singer Nicole Nelson of Dwight and Nicole. Panda doesn’t watch music competition shows, but likes that “American Song Contest” is modeled after the Eurovision Song Contest, the European event that focuses on songwriting as well as performing.
Many competitors, such as Panda, are not well known domestically. Some are already famous, including Michael Bolton, Jewel and Macy Gray. Viewers will decide the fate of contestants by voting for their favorite original song. Panda said he is writing a new song which will be released on the day of his performance, which is yet to be announced.
Panda respects but is not intimidated by its competitors. “I always knew who I was and what I was capable of,” he said.
“The cool thing is he can take on any of these cats,” said Hadeka, his longtime drummer. “On a show like that, you want someone with star power who’s quirky and larger than life. He’s all of that, which is why you wouldn’t want him in your accounting firm.
Panda showed his star power at the “’72 Review” concert at the Higher Ground, where he followed local artists such as Dwight & Nicole (“I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers), Matt Hagen (Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut”) and Craig Mitchell (“Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield). He ditched the striped coat and partially buttoned shirt for a brown leather jacket and striped polo shirt.
On his two songs – “Maybe Your Baby” by Stevie Wonder and “Jesus Is Just Alright” by The Doobie Brothers – Panda unleashed his soulful and witty side, making “’72 Review” not just a review but a renewal in all the meanings of the term. the world. He sang with power, he made contorted faces on air guitar, he sweated and had the crowd rising in loud cheers.
“He really loves it,” Hadeka said of Panda’s rock star inclinations and songwriting skills that should serve him well on “American Song Contest.” “Finally, the stars are aligning. Even if he doesn’t win, he will have an impact on this show.
Panda feels it too. He knows that the simple fact of participating in the “American Song Contest” will give a big boost to his career. His March 3 announcements on social media that he would be on the show drew nearly 1,000 likes and more than 100 comments from backers in Vermont and beyond.
“I feel really supported. I’m doing this for my career and the state of Vermont and for lack of a better term, Josh Panda Nation,” he said. “I want to give them this award.”
If you are going to
What: Watch the party for Josh Panda’s appearance on “American Song Contest”
When: 8 p.m. Monday April 18
Or: Town Hall Theatre, Middlebury
Information: Free. www.townhalltheater.org