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Manteca Idol competitors step up their game
Katelyn Johnson performs the song " If I Ain't Got You." - photo by HIME ROMERO
The gauntlet has been thrown down.

As if the weeks leading up to the first week of the Manteca Idol finals on Wednesday night weren’t an indication that there is some serious talent in this field, all traces of dissent were eradicated by the time the last singer stepped off the stage at Chez Shari.

They’re good. They’re really, really good.

With a new format this year that will accommodate younger singers that will compete among themselves and allow for more singers to be heard on a given night – each delivering only one take – those who packed into the banquet hall upstairs at the Manteca Park Golf Course were treated to three times as many performers on the first night of the competition than what they would have seen in the past.

This showed that there are, in fact, plenty of talented people involved in the competition this year, and they’re ready to go from the second that they step out for their introduction.

There is no warm-up song. There is no second take.

When Amanda Fleig sat down behind her keyboard for the first song of the night – Miley Cyrus’ “Decline” – little did she know that she’d set the tone for what looks to be a truly remarkable group of performers that runs the gamut from gifted vocalists to  talented performers.

The deep run she made in last year’s competition was evident in her apparent comfort while on the stage, and her stunning vocals were enough to shock the capacity crowd into wondering how others were going to manage to top that.

And while it’s still early to say what tops what, it didn’t take long before another performer came across the stage and managed to blow everybody away with a mixture of substance and style.

Katelyn Johnson – who has now become a regular in the annual talent competition – took the Alicia Keys track “If I Ain’t Got You” and ran for what nobody in the room could have classified as anything short of a touchdown.

Already a complicated song that requires a broad vocal range, Johnson crept up and down the scale and she worked from one side of the stage to the other – gracefully, and with the purpose of a seasoned vet with a microphone in hand.

It’s at this point that the organizers of the event – a group that completely took apart the concept of Manteca Idol over the “off season” and rebuilt it into the all-encompassing, stripped down version that we see today – should be mentioned and given their proper credit.

The format itself is a welcome change, but the thought that went into everything from the separation of the age groups to the singers that would perform during the halftime breaks added another distinct avenue for participants to get a glimpse into what they need to do to succeed.

All they had to do was watch Season 3 Manteca Idol Jessica Ochoa up there with a microphone to see exactly how it’s done.

And Ochoa wasn’t a stranger to overcoming adversity and “do-or-die” circumstances that almost everyone inside of Kelley Bros. thought would be her demise.

She froze. She dropped the microphone and ran off stage.

But rather than letting that moment – which came during the final night of the competition where the last two singers were left before the judges – define her entire run, Ochoa returned and delivered a performance that was right on par with the out-of-the-park shots she had been delivering for months.

And thus, she was there as the guest judge for the first week of the finals.

Looking at the rest of the competitors only shows a field that deepens as you get further into it – solidified by performances like the one turned in by 12-year-old Brieanne Jansen who opted for the Harry Winston Oscar Night look when delivering a late-inning rendition of Christina Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” that had all of the other finalists crowding around the corner of the room to watch her graceful style.

Judi Hoagland showed she was more than comfortable by trading jabs with the always-witty MC and reigning Manteca Idol Christine Acosta – who showed that the ice-water veins are definitely there last year when she cranked out an Aretha Franklin take a cappella – and then turning around and belting KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse And A Cherry Tree” that you knew instantly was going to solidify her protection for another week.

And you can’t leave out Brian Rodriguez who took a song from the hard-rock group Buckcherry and managed to turn it into a final-worthy take that was as refreshing for its sharpness as it was for its newness.

But being a competition, not everybody gets to go on for the next week.

Lady Liz – who drew a short straw when she ended up behind someone who had already sung her song earlier in the night and delivered a blow-out performance – will join Mickey Lee as the Idol contestants who were eliminated during the first round.

Junior Idol contestant Laci Rakestraw will also not return.

So with the field thinning every week and the competitive heat rising incrementally, Chez Shari is going to be ground-zero for hometown talent every Tuesday between now and November.

All of the proceeds go to benefit the Manteca Boys and Girls Club.

Next week former Manteca Idol Cheyenne Milligan and former Manteca Idol contestant Jordan Renfro will return as halftime competitors. The guest judge will be Ric Campero.