On June 14th, 2011 Sanjaya Malakar turned heads at the Musicquarium Lounge in Seattle, Washington with a tight set of grooving, soulful pop. Malakar was a popular but controversial finalist on season six of American Idol when he was only seventeen years old. He made headlines with his daring fashion and hairstyle choices from week to week; choices that often overshadowed his vocal ability. For many naysayers, he was the embodiment of everything that could be considered negative about American Idol.
Now twenty-one and poised to tour nationally this summer (and release his first full-length album later in the year), Malakar proved how much can change in four years. As the closing act of the Songs for June benefit for the cancer support group Gilda’s Club Seattle, he sang and performed confidently while leading a four-piece band. Opening with a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing,” Malakar was in strong voice, clearly giving his all in an attempt to win some new fans while supporting a worthy cause.
Some notable naysayers were forced to eat crow. Seattle radio personality Rick Robertson, who hosted the benefit, personally apologized to Malakar after the show for having “judged a book by its cover” based on his dislike of American Idol. The next day on Robertson’s new KXRX internet radio program, he drove the point home even further. “It pained me to promote Sanjaya, after starting this new show,” Robertson explained, “But now I got this kid’s back – I’ll go see him again. He’s a good performer and singer.”
During a set that also included covers of The Zuton’s “Valerie” (modeled more closely after Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson’s version) and Squeeze’s “Tempted” (also Malakar’s latest single release), the audience reacted enthusiastically to the positive energy. As would be expected, there were numerous fans and supporters present. But there were also those in the audience who, like Robertson, had preconceived notions based on Malakar’s Idol reputation. Another musician who performed earlier in the evening offered strong praise, calling Malakar a “great singer” with a “tight and tasteful” band.
Also on hand for the Gilda’s Club Seattle benefit were RedDog, an old-time folk trio, and singer-songwriter Kristin Allen-Zito. RedDog opened the show with a set of tunes dating back to the early twentieth century. Huddled around a single microphone, the instruments and voices of Doug Yule, Cary Lung, and Tom Collicott blended together beautifully. Allen-Zito, accompanying herself on her mother’s (folk singer Linda Allen) acoustic guitar, sang songs from her latest album, The Atlas. The audience listened to her delicate melodies and deeply personal lyrics with rapt attention.
In the end, money was raised for a great organization and Sanjaya Malakar, having spent much of the year acting in an off-Broadway play, kicked off what will be a very busy summer of performing. Despite a 5 a.m. flight to Cancun, Mexico the next morning (for the Summer With the Stars festival), Malakar graciously posed for pictures and chatted with fans until well after midnight.