Chapter Nine

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Sweet Home Alabama is one of those songs that sounds easy to sing, but actually isn't. If I was honest, and I usually was— painfully so sometimes, when Charlie gave us that song, my heart sunk. I'm not the biggest country music fan, but Charlie assured us that it was a great song to get the audience singing along.

Brad and Josh were out with one of the guitarists from the house band learning their chords, and were both really looking to showing off their skills. More and more boybands were playing instruments and writing their own songs rather than going down the 'traditional' route of the groups that were more popular in the nineties and early naughties. There were still a few of those in this competition, and that was cool with everyone. There was enough room in the market for all kinds of boybands, it was just unfortunate that only one of us could win this contest.

"Hey, guys. Could I have a quick word?" Charlie walked up to Shaun, Leighton, and me, interrupting our half-hearted rehearsal which translated as us learning the lyrics.

"Sure, what's up?" I asked, welcoming the break.

"Guy and I have been chatting to the producers about running order during the show, and we would like you to open the show."

"What?" I blurted out. "I mean... er..." I drifted off, unsure what to say. I knew the others knew how I felt.

"I know it's a lot to take in this early in the week, and it's not a definite just yet, but I wanted to let you know that we're ninety-nine percent sure you guys will be opening. You've got a great song, plus with the guitars, you should leave a lasting impression."

"Wow. We're blown away." It was a huge responsibility being the first group on stage, setting the tone of the entire show and hoping people would remember us by the time every act had performed.

"Well, I'll leave you to get back to your rehearsals."

"Lads, we need to smash this." I turned to the boys and found them both grinning, mirroring the look on my own face.

"We will."

:: ::

The week leading up to the live show flew past us while we were up to our necks in rehearsals, chats with the production team, and the judges. It was insane how busy we were, but all of us thrived on it. Now and then, when we were back at the flat and were too knackered to even blink; things got quiet and after a while, one of us would end up twatting around just to have some noise going in the background.

As much as I loved experiencing the entire thing with my best mates, the longer I was away from my family the more I missed them. I was never at home much, spending time out and about or rehearsing with the lads, but there was something about not being able to be at home that at times made me feel lonely as hell. There was no bickering between me, my brother, and sister, or winding the three of us up, just for a laugh after a rough day at work.

I knew the other guys were struggling with not being at home too, the amount of phone calls being made was insane. I wasn't looking forward to Dad's reaction to my phone bill at the end of the month, but if this whole thing worked out, then it would be worth it. At least that's what I would tell Dad when he bitched me out.

"Hey, Owen. C'mere a minute." Brad called me over. We were stood backstage waiting for the show to start. I was feeling nauseous at the thought of going out and performing in front of everyone. I'd been stood on my own, away from the guys and their frantic banter trying to psyche myself up.

"'Sup mate?"

"Look over there." He pointed through a gap in the black curtains hanging at the edge of the stage. I looked through and saw a huge banner with bright red letter spelling out "We ♥ our Ladz" that was leaning up against some seats in the front row to the left of the stage. Watching our families chatting to each other gave me the boost I hadn't realised I'd needed, getting me pumped.

"Man, that's sick!" There was no way I could shift the grin on my face knowing that there were people in the audience proud to support us.

"Right?" Suddenly, the lights in the entire studio dimmed down and the theme music started playing.

"Showtime." Brad muttered.

:: ::

The audience was deafening as the last bars of our performance faded away and the smoke from the dry ice cleared up. I took a sneaky look either side of me to see the others were grinning as much as I was. We moved forward to the front of the stage to wait for the judge's comments. My mouth was dry with nerves.

All four of them were smiling, but I wasn't sure if that was because of our performance or the reaction of the audience. I'd watched the show enough to know the audience always went mental for all of the acts— there was something about boybands in particular that got people talking. Teenage girls loved them, sometimes grown women too, while lads usually slagged them off, some secretly being jealous of the attention they get from the ladies.

"Guys, I have to say that I know that when I originally gave you that song, you were apprehensive about it, but you really pulled it off and made it your own." Charlie began to talk over the crowd. Thanks to our earpieces we could hear him clearly, something I'd never known when watching the show. "I loved the way you add more a rock feel to the song, and Shaun, your lead vocals were spot on. However, Owen, you hammed it up and played the 'cheese' card a little too much." The crowd's cheers turned to boos at his words. "A little guidance from James will calm that down. Well done guys." He sat back, a smile on his face.

"Thank you." Brad spoke quietly, showing all of our appreciation for the former contestant's honesty. Shaun was bouncing on the balls of his feet, next to me, from his solo praise.

"Guys, because you've come into this competition as a well-established group, your harmonies are really tight which is fantastic for a week one performance. I have to agree with Charlie's comments about Owen, but I'm putting it down to the mixture of nerves and excitement." Samantha, the vocal coach, was beaming. We'd worked with her a lot over the week and she'd been pleased with our progress from day to day. "A great job."

Once again, Brad thanked her. More than anything, I wanted to speak up about the criticism I'd received, but held my tongue. I didn't want to get a reputation of not being able to accept constructive criticism.

"Ladz, if you released that as a single, I would definitely play it on my show." The crowd went crazy at Lauren's comment. Just the thought of her, a nationally famous radio DJ, playing one of our songs terrified me as much as it excited me. "I always like it when groups put their own little twist on what is already a great song, and you did it with a style that is your very own."

These comments were amazing and my face was starting to ache from smiling so much. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my family cheering and waving at me. Turning my head a little, I flashed them a wink. Guy leaned forward to speak, making my heart to pound.

"With the mixture of the vocals and guitars, you boys are going to stand out a lot in my opinion. Yes, Owen hammed it up, but that showed how much you all enjoy being up there, so I'm not too worried about that." Shaun tapped me on the back, making my shoulders drop as the tension left my body at not being singled out for being the weakest link again. "I'll be interested to see how versatile you can be, and if you could tackle a ballad, as you have quite a distinctive sound with those rock undertones."

"Thank you so much." I spoke this time, pleased that Guy, at least, could see how much enjoyment we got from being up on stage, performing. Determined to learn from the negative and turn it around in time for the next performance; if we got through. Still, their words rang through my mind like a bell.

"Well guys, those were some pretty great comments from the judges. How did it feel to open the show?" Katja asked us.

"Wow, it was an honour to be the first to start the show, and I think we could quite happily perform that all over again." Brad told her. I was dying to say something, but I didn't trust myself to be able to form a proper sentence that made sense.

"Well done. Head back to the green room where Veronica and the other acts are waiting." Once again, the audience began to cheer and yell their approval as we bounced off stage and walked backstage into the green room where we could chill out and watch the other performances.

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