On July 15, the Idols Live Tour swung through Los Angeles's Nokia Theater, the very same venue where less than two months earlier Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina battled it out for the Season 10 "American Idol" title. How ironic it was, then, that the show was so easily stolen by several of the contestants who placed lower than Scotty and Lauren on "Idol" this year. That's not to take away from Scotty and Lauren's performances, of course. Scotty was a total pro, commanding the sold-out crowd's attention like a seasoned hat act, indicating that he has a big country career ahead of him. And Lauren was a real trooper, working the stage in a Bedazzler'd orthopedic boot (due to a third-degree ankle sprain she suffered last week), singing through her pain, and even giving most of the group-number choreography a good try. But so many of the other Idols--even Naima Adedapo and Paul McDonald, who frustratingly only sang one solo each, or the surprisingly underestimated (and surprisingly shirtless!) Stefano Langone--put on such stellar performances, they almost made Scotty and Lauren's solo sets in the second act of the show seem like anti-climatic afterthoughts. If these other nine contestants had performed this well on TV, any of them could have won "Idol" instead.
It has never ceased to amaze me how much better all "Idol" contestants perform on the tour, once the competition is over and they no longer have to worry about winning over the voters or judges. And judging from the Idols Live Tour's L.A. stop, this year is no different. At the Nokia Theater, Thia Megia actually seemed young and fun; Stefano was actually on pitch; Pia Toscano actually exhibited signs of a personality and sounded even better than she did on the show (if that's possible); Paul was a total rock star (his signature, awkward, "McDonald Two-Step" dancing worked better in concert than on television); Jacob was adorable and not too over-the-top...and basically everyone was, to borrow a phrase we all know all too well, in it to win it.
I admit I kind of missed the old Idols Live Tour format of the past three seasons, in which each contestant performed a leisurely mini-set of two to five songs (depending on how far they placed on "Idol"). The very fact that past contestants who came in only ninth or 10th, like Michael Sarver or Andrew Garcia, got to sing as many songs on their respective tours as James Durbin or Haley Reinhart are doing this year (two songs! only TWO songs!) made me angrier than I was those nights when James and Haley got voted off "Idol." Conspiracy theories abound as to why the tour switched back to its older, variety-show style format this year, with a jumbled contestant order and considerably more group numbers and duets. Was it a fear that non-country fans would leave early, in an attempt to avoid parking-lot gridlock, before Lauren and Scotty's sets, if the contestants sang in sequence? Was it because allowing new Interscope Records signing Pia to sing THREE songs, including her new single "This Time," would seem less suspicious if the songs were mixed up in the setlist?
Who knows? Maybe all of the above. I do know, however, that this year's format allowed for a thrillingly quick-paced show (seriously, the whopping 31 songs just whizzed by), something only enhanced by the tunes selected for this year's upbeat setlist. Sure, there weren't any truly leftfield song choices this time around (other than Janelle Monae's "Tightrope," maybe), unlike last year when Didi Benami covered little-known L.A. troubadour Kyler England and Casey James did the Black Keys, or the year before that when Adam Lambert did a rave-style Bowie medley. But at least most of the songs the Idols performed were relevant, MODERN hits--by artists like Neon Trees, Usher, Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Cee Lo Green--and after watching these poor kids struggle through their performances of dusted-off, decades-old tunes from the Motown, Carole King, Leiber & Stoller, and Elton John songbooks throughout Season 10, it was refreshing to see them finally youthing it up like this.
With THIRTY-ONE songs and two acts to recap, I've chosen to focus on my favorite 10 moments of the night. Unsurprisingly, most of the standout performances, for me, were by contestants who were my favorites on "American Idol" Season 10 itself...but there were definitely a few revelations.
10) Haley, Pia, Naima & Thia - "Tightrope"
The ladies of "Idol" looked like a modern-day En Vogue in their LSD's (Little Silver Dresses) as they sassily vamped it up on this Janelle Monae banger. (Wait for the :54 mark below, when the incredible Naima starts rapping and once again proves she should have gone a LOT farther on "Idol" than a tie for 10th place.) The only thing that could have made this more awesome? If the girls had worn little Janelle-esque tuxedo outfits instead.
9) Stefano Langone - "DJ Got Us Falling In Love"
Stefano was probably my least favorite contestant of Season 10, mainly because he often got all bug-eyed and looked like he was trying way too hard. But now it looks like all that manic effort has paid off. Stefano seemed really RELEVANT here--as in, this is the kind of Idol I could really envision crossing over, getting radio play, getting on MTV--and I was totally impressed by his performance. I could have done without him stripping his shirt off at the end (although I'm sure many laydeez in the audience would beg to differ with me), but his Usher-esque dance moves (check 'em around the 2:30 mark below) had me dancing along with him.
8) Jacob Lusk - "Never Too Much"
Jacob did way too many gospel-tinged ballads on "Idol"; I prefer Disco Jacob, like he was here, in his first solo number of the tour. It was a risk for him to do another Luther Vandross song after all the Luther comparisons he'd received, but he pulled this one off. The fact that he was playing in his hometown only added to the celebratory vibe. I dare you to watch the Lusky Stank in action below and not smile. If you don't, you should be afraid to look at yourself in the mirror.
7) James, Jacob, Casey, Stefano & Paul - "Animal"
Imagine if five goofy guys, the kind who are always the life of the party, got up at some karaoke bar and started rocking the mic after gobbling up one too many Jell-O shots. Now, imagine if instead of a karaoke bar, it was the Nokia Theater, and those five guys actually COULD TOTALLY SING. Yeah, this cover of the Neon Trees' Vegas-commercial anthem was sort of like that. These dudes were silly as heck, but they performed "Animal" like true party animals and looked like they were having more fun than they ever had on "Idol." I seriously would have been okay with it if the entire concert had been just them, all night long.
6) Haley Reinhart - "House Of The Rising Sun"
When Haley sang this on "American Idol," she suddenly seemed destined to win the entire competition. (Oh well.) Three months later, her a cappella intro had lost none of its heart-stopping, breath-catching impact; she performed this classic like a true budding baby diva. (I hope those record-deal rumors are true; my guess is if any L.A. record execs were in the audience and witnessed this, she'll be signed by the time I finish writing this review.) And in a show that was so family-friendly, Haley's irrepressible sex appeal and sass were quite welcome--especially, I imagine, for any dads or husbands who'd been dragged to the show by female relatives.
5) Paul McDonald - "Maggie May"
As I mentioned before, Paul only got to sing one song (and Pia, who placed lower on "Idol" than he did, got THREE songs; not that I'm bitter or anything). But Paul sure made the most of his time. His years of live experience, gigging in clubs with bands, was apparent, and this natural performer worked the stage and the crowd like a pro, with his people skills and megawatt smile (seriously, his chompers could have lit the entire Nokia stage on their own) on full display. And I don't remember his voice EVER sounding this good, this pure, on "Idol." If only he'd gotten to do a second song; he could have killed it on some Tom Petty or Mumford & Sons.
4) Naima Adedapo - "On The Floor"
Picking up where her brilliantly dancetastic "Dancing In The Street" performance on "Idol" left off, Naima was pure fire here. Her African dance solo left the audience wanting more (a second song sure would have been nice), and like Stefano's dance-enhanced performance, it seemed totally relevant to today's pop scene. Naima's performance was kickstarted by a videotaped intro/blessing by J.Lo herself, but after watching Naima's amazing interpretation, I think Jennifer should feel a little threatened.
3) Casey Abrams - "Smooth"
There was a time when it looked like Casey could win "American Idol." This performance reminded everyone why. It was classic Casey--a bit of growling, a bit a psychopathic facial mugging, some jazzy standup bass-playing, and tons of post-makeover, grown-out woolly hair. And most of all, lots and lots of originality. It was, in a capslocked word, FANTASTIC. He put a spell on everyone with this stellar performance.
2) James Durbin - "Sweet Child O' Mine"
This evening, the Durbs lived out every one of his rock 'n' roll fantasies, and world-wrestling fantasies, the ones he probably had in his teenage bedroom when he posed in front of his mirror strumming a tennis racket or wearing a homemade cardboard WWE belt. His rocker-boy enthusiasm was contagious, from the moment he entered the stage through the audience, sporting tattered, sausage-casing-tight red jeans and Nikki Sixx warpaint, to when he finally impressively tackled the GNR power ballad's epic, key-change-laden coda. (Axl Rose's vocals are not easy to take on, you know.) The energy jumped up the instant the Durbinator entered the arena, and it stayed up. Everyone in the Nokia was giving metal a chance, and it was, as Steven Tyler might say, a beautiful thing.
1) The Big Hair-Metal Finale
It was awesome enough that the top 11's final medley powered up with James and Lauren dueting on Whitesnake's perennial power ballad "Here I Go Again." Or that Haley, Paul, and Casey then warbled "Faithfully" by Journey (I hoisted my illuminated cell phone for that). But then the top 11 paid homage to "Idol" judge Steven with a bit of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," and then belted out even MORE Journey, rocking to the very end with "Any Way You Want It"/"Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'." All that was missing was Haley sexily rolling atop the hood of a Jaguar during the Whitesnake song, and, of course, some pyro. And maybe more cowbell.
BONUS CLIP: And The Winners Are...
Latest winner Scotty's set was introduced with a Memory-Lane-strutting montage of all 10 seasons' winning moments, starting with Kelly Clarkson and, thankfully, not omitting less successful champions Taylor Hicks or Lee DeWyze. While it's possible that Season 6 runner-up Blake Lewis, who was in the Nokia audience, didn't really enjoy watching himself lose again (Blake, if you're reading this: I booed at that moment), I'm sure everyone else loved this. I had, as Jennifer Lopez likes to say, goosepimples. And this montage already had me excited to find out who will win and be on the tour in Season 11.