American Idols LIVE! brought the top ten finalists from season nine to Seattle’s Key Arena Friday, August 20th, 2010. As with previous Idols LIVE! productions, fans of the television show are presented with a series of mini-concerts from each of the finalists in order of their elimination. The audience ranged from young children to elderly seniors, all cheering their favorites with increasingly hearty ovations. The response peaked with the appearance of this year’s winner, Lee DeWyze.
The unsung heroes of the concert are the house band, who dutifully provide credible backing in a wide variety of musical genres. An Idols LIVE! concert is basically a large-scale rockaraoke show (karaoke performed with a live band). That’s neither praise nor a knock against the talent involved. Though it’s worth pointing out that an Idol finalist who truly transcends the level of impersonation, especially when covering a recent hit, is rare.
Since she was the first finalist eliminated from the television show, Didi Benami opened the concert. Benami displayed little stage presence as she fronted the band for two numbers, Kyler England’s “Lay It On Me” and Katharine McPhee’s “Terrified.” Apparently “Terrified” was a defining moment for her during Hollywood week, and Benami introduced it as “one you might remember from the show.” I didn’t, despite having watched every episode of the season. Even looking past the lack of charisma (which is forgivable given the size of the venue and the relative inexperience of the performer), Benami’s vocals were thin and frequently off key.
The excitement level rose considerably with Andrew Garcia, the contestant who peaked so early (during Hollywood week) that week after week he seemed to fall flat. Even casual watchers of season nine know the song that made him an early contender: a stripped-down acoustic reworking of Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up.” Garcia opened his solo spot in the concert with a complete rendition of that song, a very smart move. The crowd loved it. Backstage before the concert, I asked Garcia whether the song was a help or hindrance to his overall progress. “It gave me an identity and showed people who I am, what I do,” Garcia explained, making it clear he plans to record the song for a studio album should he be given the opportunity. Garcia also delivered a laid back version of Maroon 5′s “Sunday Morning.”
Katie Stevens struggled during her time on season nine to define herself stylistically. Strutting around the stage confidently, she made a case for herself as a belter with Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter.” Though it didn’t amount to much more than an straight copy of the original version, Stevens worked up a pretty good head of steam. Speaking with her before the show, she expressed a desire to follow in Aguilera’s footsteps. Covering Demi Lovato’s “Here We Go Again” as her first song seemed to hedge the bet by reaching out to a much younger audience.
Tim Urban was next and sent the younger females in the audience into delirium. Urban’s good looks and winning smile should assure him some work in Disney musicals or perhaps Broadway. As an arena rock performer, however, I’d say his prospects are definitely more limited. “Better Days,” an old Goo Goo Dolls number, was a decent choice but Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” was a bit of a stretch. He sang well, in as much as all the notes were pitch perfect. But he didn’t bring anything original to his interpretations.
A surprise elimination during season nine, Siobhan Magnus opened her set with one of her signature songs from the competition, The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black.” Magnus, clearly out to make a dramatic impression, brought a high level of energy to her performance. Amidst a haze produced by smoke machines, she stalked the stage with a natural performer’s confidence. While it was a great way to kick up the sagging energy level following Tim Urban’s lackluster offering, she didn’t maintain it with her other two songs. No Doubt’s “Spiderwebs” seemed out of left field, leaving the audience rather nonplussed. Attempting to reestablish some modern rock credibility with Muse’s “Stockholm Syndrome” was a sensible idea, but she over sang the song considerably.
Even so, Siobhan Magnus seized the spotlight in a way few of the finalists did during the concert. When I asked her before the show about her previous performing experience, she mentioned musical theater as an influence in shaping her style. Her various ‘battle of the bands’ contests, performing with her rock group Lunar Valve, also built confidence as a performer. It showed last night.
The youngest of the season nine finalists, having turned 17 during the show’s run, Aaron Kelly displayed some potential as a country star. His three song set began with Keith Urban’s “Somebody Like You,” continued with Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis” (based on Lonestar’s more recent hit cover), and wrapping up with Rascal Flatts’ “Fast Cars and Freedom.” Kelly deserves credit for knowing exactly who he is as a singer. His appeal was evident based on the reactions by young girls in the audience. As a stage presence, he remains as bland homogenized as Tim Urban’s Zac Efron impersonation. Like Urban, Kelly sings well and seems comfortable in front of an audience. But his prospects once the tour ends and Idol fans move on to the next crop of hopefuls seem slim.
Before moving on to the top four finalists, the previous six performers returned to the stage for a singalong of Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.” The song played more to the strengths of Urban and Kelly, leaving the others unable to make much of an impression. An intermission built anticipation for the remaining four Idols yet to be heard from.
Michael Lynche benefited during season nine from the “judge’s save.” Voted off the show during Lennon/McCartney week, he was allowed a second chance. Lynche made the most of it, lasting another five weeks in the competition. I had a chance to talk with him about his performing skills, which he explained were honed by his years as lead singer in a wedding band. Such cover bands were often derided by Simon Cowell during his nine seasons as an Idol judge, but Lynche explained what a great learning experience it was. The band he joined had been around for decades, with Lynche joining them “as an apprentice.” Performing songs from every genre imaginable gave him the ability to fine-tune his approach, maximizing the range of his appeal.
Lynche began his set with possibly the best received song of his Idol run, Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” He strapped on an acoustic guitar for “Ready For Love,” by India.Arie, possibly the concert’s quietest, most intimate tune. He closed his set with Justin Timberlake’s “My Love.” Honestly, I would have rather heard something that reflected his old school influence. Before the show, we talked about the old school soul he was raised on. “The showmanship of Sly and the Family Stone is something I want to capture,” Lynche said. It would have been fun to hear him cut loose on an old classic, but the audience responded well to the Timberlake number. Michael Lynche is clearly one of the most seasoned performers of the season nine finalists.
Moving into the top three, Casey James brought down the house with a dazzling display of guitar soloing on The Black Keys’ “I Got Mine.” James received high marks during Idol for his instrumental prowess, but due to time constraints his solos were always limited to a few bars. In concert, he unleashed a torrent of blues rock fury that brought nearly everyone at the Key Arena to their feet. His vocals were excellent as well, arguably more convincing than anything he did on the television show. Shania Twain’s “Don’t!” allowed for a tender moment with far more restrained guitar work, as James switched from acoustic to electric for the solo.
Joined by Michael Lynche, James dueted on “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” which was a popular moment during season nine. I would’ve preferred something from James on his own, as my tolerance level for that insipid Bryan Adams ballad is very low. James closed his set with some ferocious slide guitar as he tore through “It’s All Over Now,” which he first performed during Rolling Stones week of Idol. A common complaint about Casey James during his time on the show was a lack of stage presence. He seemed to wash away any doubts regarding his charisma, working hard to give the fans their money’s worth.
Crystal Bowersox took the stage to a warmly enthusiastic ovation. After the roof raising guitar heroics of Casey James, Bowersox quietly re-focused the audience on a more subtle sound. 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” came off as a well-sung impersonation. Melissa Etheridge’s “Come To My Window” followed, again with a strong vocal, though not enough originality to make the song her own. Her best moment of the concert has also been her best moment on season nine, Patty Griffin’s “Up To the Mountain,” released to unfortunately lukewarm reaction as her debut single. She dedicated the song to her son, and poured her heart into an impassioned vocal. Closing with “Piece Of My Heart,” the Janis Joplin classic, brought her back into predictable territory. Bowersox has a fantastic talent, but I’d like to hear her really establish her own voice rather than indulging in mimicry.
Without a doubt, the loudest cheers greeted the current American Idol champ Lee DeWyze. He’s come a long way from the ultra-nervous, often off-key singer from the early weeks of season nine. Opening with his coronation single, a reworking of U2′s “Beautiful Day,” he came across as a sort of bush league Springsteen. DeWyze sounds best when he pushes his voice to its raspy limits, and he did so throughout his five song set.
Elton John’s “Rocket Man” was a suitable choice for DeWyze, also providing the older audience members with something a bit more recognizable in the contemporary-dominated set. He continued with a pair of highlights from his Idol run, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and the Cornelius Brothers’ “Treat Her Like a Lady.” Returning to contemporary material, but remaining rock-oriented, he closed with Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody.” It was a crowd-pleasing set to be sure, with DeWyze repeatedly expressing gratitude to the Seattle audience.
Overall American Idols LIVE!, like the tours that followed previous Idol seasons, is a mixed bag. The entertainment value to be derived depends entirely on the level of interest an audience member has in the various ten performers. Andrew Garcia was the biggest surprise early in the show. His rendition of “Straight Up” went beyond the by rote covers that cluttered the show, truly making someone else’s song his own. Garcia often seemed stiff in front of the Idol cameras, but onstage he was loose and left me wanting more. Casey James emerged as the true star of season nine, displaying such impressive ability on lead guitar that he overshadowed everything else.
American Idols LIVE! has several more stops before the tour concludes August 31st, in Indianapolis.