Picking her way through songs

Singer: Three years ago, Gina DeLuca got pushed on a stage at a Fells Point bar to sing. Now you can catch her Friday evenings at Leadbetter's.

June 12, 2000|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Tonight, she needs only a flower in her hair, a hibiscus, something sturdy and sub-tropical to complement her loungy, flowery dress. She is backlit in the bar, Leadbetter'sin Fells Point, where the singer works the Friday Happy Hour, Friday after Friday, hour after hour. Sunshine whites out her face. Just a silhouette in a dress.

She sways her hips to her music, and the twentysomething with the long-neck Bud and the "M.R. Ducks, Ocean City" T-shirt stops in mid-yak. He puts down his Slim Jim. Oh, someone is singing. I should turn around on my bar stool and listen up.

She plays R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" and her guitar sputters on the ending, "the tricky thing," as she calls it. "I need to learn that one day," she jokes.

She has a name, of course. Gina DeLuca. Is that a great name or what? Fall half in love with just the name. Her name could be a song in itself.

6:05 p.m.: "I'm taking a break, folks. You talked me into it, " Canton-raised Gina DeLuca tells her audience. "Please take care of your bartenders. Please take care of me." She gives her thin-bodied, acousticelectric Washburn guitar a rest, then walks to the bar. Lights up a smoke. She nudges a guy in a clean white T-shirt (is this her boyfriend?), who in our opinion looks a little scrawny. Then she walks over here, very close now.

Her face comes into focus. Rosy round face, deep DeLuca eyes.

"I got shoved on stage three years ago," says DeLuca, by way of career biography. Across Thames Street from Leadbetter's at the Horse You Came In On saloon, she closed her eyes one night and started singing Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason." She blanked out on the lyrics. She heard laughing.

"I had to redeem myself."

She spent the next two days listening to the Chapman song "about a hundred times," then took the stage again at the Horse, closed her eyes, and imagined herself singing to herself in her living room. Remembered being 3 years old in the backseat of her mother's gold Plymouth Duster and singing along to the Beatles' "Yesterday." Her brother would tell her, in loving brotherly tones, shut up. But there was no shutting her up.

She finished the Chapman song on the second attempt -- "I nailed it!" -- and heard applause. She thought: "I think I just found what I want to do for a living," she says. "And I've been addicted to that feeling ever since."

She learned to play guitar off the Internet. Then 2 1/2 years ago, DeLuca began spending her Friday evenings singing at Leadbetter's, the 4 p.m.-8 p.m. shift. "I would like to be respected as a musician," she says, during a break. "I would just like to make a living at playing."

The bartender sees us talking to Gina DeLuca. What we're talking about is money, a touchy subject. For about four hours of singing, DeLuca makes $10. At least the guitar lessons are free on the Web. Still, how does she live on that kind of money?

Big smile. "I got a boyfriend with a job," says DeLuca, 26.

The bartender hoists a laptop onto the bar top. He has sensed a newspaper article in progress. The bartender (he has a name, too: William "Fons" Fonshell -- "I shoot anyone who prints my full name") shows us the Leadbetter's Web site, which describes it as an "Old Baltimore," "venerable watering hole," with "mondo cool urinals."

The site has reviews of DeLuca's cover songs (Jewel, Melissa Etheridge et al.) and an original song ("12 Steps"). It also offers this assessment: "It's only going to be a short period until her calendar gets booked full!"

Well, DeLuca plays the occasional gig in Ellicott City, Annapolis, Bel Air and other venerable Fells Point watering holes, with their own mondo cool urinals perhaps. But for now, she reserves her Friday nights for Leadbetter's.

"I'm going to play something I played three times today already ... because I can," she tells the thin crowd.

It's a popular song on the radio -- or rather was popular a year or two ago. The name escapes us. A guy walks into Leadbetter's, and sunshine blasts our mole eyes. He's carting a load of Rolling Rock. After getting the invoice signed, he takes a break to listen to Gina DeLuca and her Washburn thin-bodied guitar. A plastic jug for tips is her only other stage prop.

She sings the popular song, which shows off her four-octave range. (Mariah Carey supposedly has eight octaves, DeLuca says. "That's like a porpoise." ) Then her song ends, bringing that suspended, awkward moment so true in local bars featuring local singers.

You have heard it. It's the sound of no sound immediately after the singer finishes. Then, as if the applause was only hibernating, it finally awakens. One, two, five, maybe more people in the bar clap for the singer. She hears the applause, and it's still addictive, and the world is right again. And maybe the money doesn't matter, after all.

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