At Last: Josh Krajcik, six months after ‘X Factor’

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From the July 12, 2012 edition

Josh Krajcik’s imposing frame is hunched over his keyboard, his tangled mane bobbing, his gloriously coarse Joe Cocker croon reverberating through the microphone.

His band of buddies rumbles through The Beatles’ “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” a number they’ve knocked out countless times before, often in dimly lit dives for a handful of barflies. This time, when Krajcik looks up, bright lights reveal an ocean of humanity.

Newport Music Hall is jam-packed with faces, and they’re all here to see him.

“I’d just like to let you guys know that tonight, you have sold out this show!” Krajcik announces. A series of shout-outs ensues: Who’s here from Columbus? Wooster? Out of state? Out of the country?

It feels like the whole world is here, or Krajcik’s whole world at least. Lifelong friends, family, distant acquaintances, music scene peers and seemingly every last resident of Krajcik’s native Wooster has crowded into the 1,800-capacity concert hall. So has a legion of strangers — a demographic-defying bunch of newly minted Krajcik fanatics who discovered the singer during his stint on Fox’s televised singing contest “The X Factor.”

Krajcik’s string of stirring performances on the show landed him a second-place finish, a major-label record deal and — judging from this, his first full-fledged concert since “The X Factor” wrapped up — a bright future.

•••

Same band, same song, same city, but the stakes are precipitously lower. It’s 2010, and Josh Krajcik Band is playing ComFest for the first time after five years gutting it out in Columbus.

A few dozen onlookers are planted on blankets by the Goodale Park gazebo, presumably enjoying a familiar tune courtesy of some anonymous schlubs whose name they’ll never remember. Hundreds more mill about nearby in search of contraband, painted boobs and street meat, oblivious to a rousing performance from a future star. In retrospect, The Washington Post’s experiment in which commuters were too busy to notice a world-class violinist busking in the subway comes to mind.

Krajcik and longtime bandmates Mitch Pinkston (bass) and Corey Gillen (drums) got a taste of the big time in 2006 when they toured as the backing band for Krajcik’s pal Gran Bel Fisher, an adventure that took them to Bonnaroo and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

It wasn’t exactly a career launch pad, though. Afterward they returned to crummy day jobs and grinding out gruff-but-approachable blues rock at local bars for the same handful of friends and fans. They get some local radio support from WOSU’s Eric French, who helped Krajcik assemble the band in 2005. But here at ComFest, with his 30th birthday looming, Krajcik isn’t much closer to rock stardom than his first gig at age 16, when he lied about his age to get a show at a seedy bar in Lodi.

He feels the window starting to close, and it’s gnawing at him. The frustration pours into an album called “Atavistic.” When it comes out in February 2011, Krajcik explains to Alive, “I wanted to take this anxious feeling I had from the tour, and from expectations, getting older, and flesh it out a little.”

On the first track, he roars: “You know that you will die! You know that you will die by yourself, all alone!”

In May, three months after releasing the bile-filled “Atavistic,” Krajcik attempts a Hail Mary. He hops into his mother’s car and rides seven hours to the Sears Centre near Chicago, where “The X Factor” is hosting auditions.

Krajcik and his mom, Lisa Pim, linger anxiously backstage. He tells the cameras about his day job at Downtown burrito joint Cinco and the displeasure of smelling like onions after work. Pim panics with anticipation and sings her son’s praises like only mothers can. When he’s summoned, she advises, “Rock and roll, Joshua.”

The next thing he knows, Krajcik is on stage in a massive arena staring down a panel of judges including former “American Idol” kingpin Simon Cowell. The merciless British music magnate aims his notorious snark directly at Krajcik. When the burly, unkempt singer announces he’s performing Etta James’ classic soul ballad “At Last,” all Cowell can muster is a contemptuous, “Really?”

What happens next is stunning enough to attract more than 7 million views on YouTube. Krajcik absolutely crushes it. His performance is literally spine-tingling.

Admirably, Cowell is quick to eat crow: “I always thought after a few auditions over the years I wouldn’t be surprised again. And then you started singing, and it was — it just blew me away.”

Backstage, anxiety becomes ecstasy. Amidst the giddiness, Krajcik sees the big picture. “Making it to the next round is really a small thing,” he says. “Winning this competition — that will change my life.”

But even a small stepping stone is one worth celebrating: “Where’s the bar? Is there a bar somewhere around here?”

•••

Krajcik lands in Los Angeles that fall to begin weekly competition on “The X Factor,” determined to go all the way without losing himself in the process. And although his performances are occasionally marked by dancers, light shows and songs this no-frills rocker wouldn’t have chosen himself, he manages to keep his dignity intact amidst the circus.

Whether singing the Rolling Stones or Rihanna, his approach works; week after week, he moves on, all the way to the finale. His performances are so consistently inspiring that Paula Abdul coins the phrase “Krajcik magic.”

Back in Columbus, his bandmates organize weekly watch parties at Victory’s, the humble Brewery District bar where they played their album release show. All of Wooster stands at attention. But Ohio isn’t the only place enchanted by Krajcik’s performances. Thanks to worldwide broadcasts and YouTube, Krajcik attracts a voracious global fan base that showers his Facebook and Twitter accounts with adulation.

By the time the season finale airs in December, it almost doesn’t matter whether Krajcik wins. Whether or not he walks away with the $5 million record deal, he is already a budding rock star. When Melanie Amaro is announced as the winner, Krajcik’s childlike grin only amplifies.

And why not smile? A month later, he’s flying back to L.A. for business meetings and songwriting sessions. In the ensuing months, he will sign a deal with RCA subsidiary Phonogenic Records and travel to London to collaborate with Adele songwriter Eg White. He gets the fame of “The X Factor” without the commitment that comes with winning.

“To come in second, obviously financially it’s not as good, but $5 million was never the goal,” he says by phone from the airport. “My goal is to win a Grammy someday.”

•••

The first weekend of June, after a whirlwind start to 2012, Krajcik reconvenes his bandmates at bassist Pinkston’s house in Galloway. French, the radio DJ, has joined as a second guitarist.

They’re in the midst of 10 straight days rehearsing for the Newport gig, Krajcik’s post-“X Factor” coming out party. He could have hired industry pros to be his band, but for this show he is literally getting the band back together.

On Pinkston’s screened porch, they smoke cigarettes and drink “Fresca-ritas” (Fresca and tequila) while nerding out over “Game of Thrones” and old records. Intermittently, Krajcik details some of his unbelievable experiences.

One particularly absurd tale: When Krajcik sang the national anthem before a Major League Baseball event at Huntington Park, Hall of Famers like Rod Carew and Wade Boggs were starstruck by him. “Wade Boggs pulls out his flip phone and calls his wife and says, ‘It’s really him!’”

There is a downside to all the jet-setting, namely the strain of spending weeks away from his longtime girlfriend, Megan. But even that has its silver lining: “It’s harder on writing trips because you’re f---ing alone. Which is good for writing, to be alone and f---ing miserable.”

After an hour of kicking back, the band hits the basement and runs through a gleaming new Krajcik original called “One Thing,” a mid-tempo, minor-key track that bridges the gap between The Eagles and the blues. Working with pros has smoothed out his songwriting, but Krajcik’s soul-stirring vocal cords sound ferocious as ever, ready to eat the Newport alive.

•••

By the time doors open at 7 p.m., the line outside the Newport stretches several blocks down High Street.

Backstage, Krajcik kicks it with his inner circle — Megan, the bandmates, his older brother Zack (who could pass for a twin), accountants from Nashville, old pal Gran Bel Fisher, opening act The Wet Darlings. The camaraderie from the rehearsals has spilled into the dressing room, where conversation ranges from Cleveland sports to unease about what behavior occurred on these couches over the years.

The walls are littered with signatures from previous performers, so Krajcik grabs a silver Sharpie and doodles Weird Bird, a misanthropic cartoon character he’s been drawing at bars for 15 years. He autographs the opposite wall with the message, “This was my first sold-out show at the Newport.”

Just before showtime, in walks Krajcik’s childhood friend Wade Howard. He wastes no time busting Krajcik’s balls. “What is this?” Howard asks, motioning to the scarf accenting Krajcik’s otherwise plain wardrobe. “Quit being a dick,” Krajcik responds before launching his own good-natured barbs.

The band downs shots of Jack Daniel’s before taking the stage. When somebody asks if Krajcik wants to bring the bottle on stage, he declines with self-deprecation: “That’s the old Josh, the one that didn’t wear scarves.”

•••

The concert plays out like a storybook ending, the audience greeting covers and originals alike with thunderous applause, especially Krajcik’s solo rendition of “At Last.” When the band encores with a rapturous Stevie Wonder medley, Krajcik lets loose a guitar solo as fierce as his formidable pipes.

They exit to the kind of applause a musician could get used to. Krajcik greets his brother with a fist bump and Megan with a sweaty embrace. “If your underwear isn’t soaked when you’re done playing, you didn’t rock hard enough,” he philosophizes.

Everyone feels a mix of elation and exhaustion, but Krajcik’s night is not over. Several hundred fans have lined up for an autograph signing that will last well over an hour.

Nor is his story over. Another one-off gig is booked for Aug. 1 at Cleveland’s House of Blues. Krajcik hopes to have his album out and a tour underway before the end of the year. His entire career stretches out in front of him with nary a burrito in sight.

Just ask his mother, who is wandering around during the autograph session greeting everyone in the building with a jumping hug.

“‘X Factor’ was awesome, but this is more real,” Pim says, in awe of her son. “It’s a long time coming. And this show is only the beginning. They’re gonna get better — and bigger.”