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American Idol Goes Through To Hollywood: The L.A. Concert Review

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

Last night's big American Idols Live concert at the Staples Center in Los Angeles was a homecoming show of sorts for the top 10. It took place not only in the city where all 10 Idols first made it through Hollywood Week and then competed all season long, but it was staged right across the street from the Nokia Theater, where less than two months ago the splashy American Idol season 8 finale was thrillingly held. And in a way, many of the Idols were back to being judged, as L.A. is an industry town, so the audience last night was absolutely teeming with entertainment media types and--perhaps more importantly--A&R reps possibly looking to bestow record deals upon the as-yet-unsigned Idols.

Such intense scrutiny could have made lesser Idols nervous, but then again, they'd already performed for a television audience of millions and, of course, had to deal with the even more intense scrutiny of the likes of Simon Cowell. So to that end, based on what I witnessed last night...all of the unsigned Idols are probably having power lunches with Hollywood record execs and signing on dotted lines right now, as I type this, because they all rose to the challenge last night. I naturally had my own favorites (Adam and Allison, who as L.A.-based rockers actually received the wildest reactions in general from the largely glittered-sprinkled, leather-clad, somewhat older-skewing L.A. audience). But honestly, I was genuinely, very pleasantly surprised by all 10 Idols' performances, even by those I wasn't so crazy about during their tenure on the actual series.

Seriously, I couldn't help but think of a bizarre but apt Winter Olympics analogy: You know how during the Olympics, it seems so many of the figure skaters trip up and stumble when the pressure is on, thus ruining their chances of even snagging a bronze medal, let alone the gold? But then when they participate in post-competition exhibition shows, they execute every axel and salchow flawlessly? Well, last night's Idols Live concert was sort of like that. Freed from the rules of the competition (no more Rat Pack Night, Country Night, Polka Night, whatever) and the fear of Cowell criticism, and seemingly unfazed by all the aforementioned industry bigwigs in the audience, the Idols just did what they did best in their respective specialty genres, let the public see what they really can do as artists, and all delivered winning performances. If they'd performed this well, this professionally, this confidently, while actually appearing on the show, it might have been a different AI competition entirely this season--and who knows who might have actually won in the end?

But, as totally cheesy and feelgoody as this sounds, all 10 Idols were in a way winners last night, by each performing mini solo sets on the Staples Center stage--one of the biggest and most famous stages in the country, the site of events like the Grammy Awards and last week's Michael Jackson Memorial--and all holding the attention of the 20,000-capacity audience like true superstars.

The linear concert consisted of short sets by each of the singers, from the 10th-placer to headlining champ Kris Allen, which meant that arguably the least popular (or just the least-known) contestant, Michael Sarver, was saddled with the high-pressure task of opening the show. Season 7's 10-placer Chikezie Eze did a great job of this last year with his high-energy opening set, but I admit I had my concerns regarding whether Michael would be able to pump up the crowd last night.

Of course, this crowd didn't really NEED any pumping up, as they were already quite hysterically freaking out before the Staples' lights were even dimmed, just from seeing their favorite Idols in the never-ending loop of Ford and Disney World commercials on the jumbotrons. But Michael did pull it off, wisely going with two uptempo numbers, Gavin DeGraw's "In Love With A Girl" and Ne-Yo's "Closer" (both sweetly dedicated to his wife back home, Tiffany). If he was skittish about having to kick off the big L.A. show, he hid his nerves well.

Next up was Megan Joy, whose two-song set (Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" and Amy Winehouse's "Tears Dry On Their Own," both ideal showcases for her smoky vibrato) was a wonderfully endearing blend of clumsy quirkiness and all-out Hollywood glamour. She looked gorgeously Barbie-esque, her hair molded into a platinum cascade of Veronica Lake fingerwaves and her knockout figure sheathed in girly pink satin. And she worked the huge stage like a real diva much of the time. But she still broke into her signature, cutely awkward hip-swiveling Megan Dance; hit herself in the teeth with her microphone, laughing it off and quipping, "That was awesome!"; and, much to my delight, concluded her set with now-famous "caw caw!" birdcall. (Yay!) Megan's mix of golden-goddess beauty and goofy nerdgirl-next-doorishness has always been the key to her appeal, and she certainly appealed last night. And for anyone who ever thought she wasn't pro enough to cut it on a mega-massive show like AmIdol, it should be noted that Megan was reportedly sick with food poisoning last night, but she never let her illness affect her thoroughly enjoyable solo performance.

Scott MacIntyre was next, doing what he was meant to do: play piano, period. He always faltered on American Idol, perhaps being pushed farther out of his respective comfort zone than any other season 8 contestant and receiving more Simon barbs than anyone else. But his set last night was proof that the right (cliché alert!) SONG SELECTION makes all the difference. No more ill-advised obscure Michael Jackson covers or piano-less Survivor power ballads. His two numbers last night, Keane's "Bend And Break" and Vanessa Carlton's "1,000 Miles," sounded like they were written just for Scott, or even by Scott, they were so well-suited for his adult-alternative style. I enjoyed his performance much more than I expected to, from the moment he hydraulically rose from below the stage floor playing a grand piano and wearing a sequined tuxedo jacket (what an Elton John-esque entrance!) to the point when he joked good-naturedly about Ryan Seacrest's "high-five heard 'round the world" and offered a silly, British-accented Simon Cowell impersonation. Scott was definitely a nice surprise last night.

An even bigger and better surprise, however, was the three-song set by Lil Rounds. Who knew this girl had it in her? She never seemed all that confident on American Idol, always struggling to find her own identity and seemingly taking the judges' harsh critiques very personally (and often sassing back unnecessarily, which ultimately backfired on her). But last night marked the arrival of Lil Rounds--the diva, the artist, the star. All decked out in sexy breakaway evening wear (she shed her hourglass-shaped satin trench to reveal a bra top!) and piles upon piles of rhinestones (including the coolest, most covetable pair of multi-karat stripper-platform shoes I have ever seen), she looked stunning and sassy, and she had a certain swagger I'd never witnessed from her before. She killed it on a Mary J. Blige medley and Alicia Keys' "No One," but really got her groove on during her cover of Beyonce's "Single Ladies," complete with the famous accompanying dance steps (the "Single Ladies" video choreographer, JaQuel Knight, is actually a choreographer on the Idols Live tour this year). For the first time since season 8's Michael Jackson Night, it seemed like Lil Rounds was really letting loose and having FUN. It's too bad that this side of her wasn't more evident when she was on American Idol, but better late than never. The audience was certainly having fun with Lil last night.

More R&B flavor was then supplied by Anoop Desai, who started off his set seated on a stool and crooning two mellow ballads that showcased his often underrated voice (Willie Nelson/Elvis Presley's "Always On My Mind" and Ne-Yo's "Mad"), but then thankfully unleashed the likably party-hardy, "Anoop Dogg" side of his dual personality with the new-jack-swinging Bobby Brown cover "My Prerogative." And he got his swag on! The audience ate it up (at first I was confused, as I thought the crowd was BOOING, but then I realized they were just yelling, "Anooooooop!") and the fans danced in earnest for the first time that evening. Anoop then won the masses over even more when he pulled his original Idol audition ticket from his pocket (trivia alert: his audition number was 74002) and reflected on the crazy journey he'd had, pointing to the bizarre computer graphics on the Staples stage and incredulously marveling: "Now I've got clouds 'n' stuff behind me!"

Performing next was Matt Giraud, out to prove that he was worthy of both his Wild Card and famous Judges' Save this season. And he succeeded. His opener, the Southern-flavored Otis Redding/Black Crowes barnstormer "Hard To Handle," showcased a vivacious, aggressive side of Matt rarely seen on American Idol, and the crowd went ballistic when he banged out a Jerry Lee Lewis-style solo on the keys. His next two numbers ,"Georgia On My Mind" (the standout song that made him one to watch during Hollywood Week) and the Fray's "You Found Me," further allowed him to flaunt his piano skills, albeit in a much mellower manner. Yes, the judges did the right thing by bringing Matt back as a Wild Card, as evidenced by his star turn at the Staples.

So after a solid, not-at-all-cruiseshippy group performance medley (Megan and Lil on "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You"; pianists Scott and Matt dueling on Billy Joel's "Tell Her About It"; Anoop, Matt, Scott, and Michael belting out a Temptations-style line-formation rendition of Madcon's "Beggin'" with Lil taking on the mid-song rap), it was intermission time. All fired up from the fab show so far, I headed to the merch booth and on impulse somehow blew $100 on Idol T-shirts and tote bags. Seriously. It's a good thing I get paid to write this blog.

It's also a good thing that I bought my merch during intermission, as opposed to after the entire show, as I knew the best was yet so come and that the top four would work me into such an Idoltastic frenzy, I'd be likely to blow my entire damn Yahoo! paycheck on Adam Lambert keychains and Allison Iraheta glowsticks.

Back inside the arena, Allison got the party restarted with a righteous rawk 'n' roll set was as fiery as her flame-colored tresses, so much so that she received the first stadium-wise standing ovation of the evening from her hometown crowd. The girl, despite being a 17-year-old cutie offstage, exuded total Joan Jett-esque badassed-ness onstage: special-effects wind in her hair the whole time, black leather motorbabe stagewear from head to toe, electric guitar low-slung around her leathery hips. And she had a voice that totally held its own when compared to the original powerhouse rock-diva singers she covered: Pink ("So What," complete with the sassy song-concluding raspberry), Janis Joplin ("Crybaby"), and Heart's Ann Wilson ("Barracuda"). She owned it, she outshone almost all of her elder fellow contestants, and I was utterly wowed, as were the other 19,999 freaking-out fans in the Staples Center. This was a superstar performance by possibly one of the best female Idols EVER. It made me wish Allison T-shirts had been available at the merch booth (along with the Kris Allen and Adam Lambert ones); that would have been another good excuse to max out my credit card.

Allison was admittedly a tough act to follow. But third-placer Danny Gokey has his own diehard fanbase, and last night he hit the Staples stage with tons of enthusiasm and an eager-to-please attitude. He certainly seemed to have benefitted from some possible one-on-one dance lessons from the aforementioned JaQuel Knight, as his moves during the Michael Jackson cover "PYT" and Santana's "Maria Maria" were not the cringe-worthy, drunk-dad-at-a-wedding, Taylor Hicksy missteps he demonstrated while on Idol. I admit was a little irked when he started to preach about his deceased wife and overcoming adversity (he went into buzzkill minister mode for a minute, bringing down the party vibe), but his message was ultimately a positive one about never giving up on one's dreams, so I squashed my inner cynic and just allowed myself to enjoy his covers of Rascal Flatts' "What Hurts The Most" and "My Wish"--both indications that Danny really is angling for a country career, and that when and if he does, he'll likely fare quite well.

But all of this, of course, was leading up to the main least for me, and for many of the avid Angelenos in the house: 20 minutes in rock 'n' roll heaven with the one, the only, Adam Lambert. The anticipation inside Staples was heavy, palpable, electric. Just the buildup from the jumbotron screen display (a montage of closeups of Adam's screaming, copiously guylinered face and of inky black nail varnish being applied in slo-mo to his famous fingertips) elicited dog-whistle-decibel shrieks rarely heard outside of a Jonas Brothers concert, Saw movies, or a crime scene.

And then...the Glamerican Idol emerged amid thick swirls of dry-ice fog and overdriven cougar-fan hormones.

Stalking the stage in his reptilian blue leather Skingraft jacket that perfectly matched the cobalt streaks in his coif (surely not an accident--nothing about The Glambert's carefully crafted image is coincidental), the born performer let his freak-flag fly high, and I enthusiastically saluted. Sometimes he had to strategically tone down his fantastical freaky-deakiness while on American Idol in order to avoid weirding out more conservative viewers, but last night he obviously harbored no such concerns: I literally lost count of how many gratuitous crotch-grabs, vigorous pelvis thrusts, Chippendalean hip-gyrations, and suggestively phallic microphone-fondling moves he executed during his kickass kickoff number, "Whole Lotta Love," alone.

The guy just oozed pure sex out of every one of his thickly Max Factor-spackled pores. It made me glad that this year's Staples audience seemed a lot older than last year's (when the tween-friendly David Archuleta was the second-place co-headliner), because much of "Whole Lotta Love" was not suitable for underage viewing. This performance left me feeling sweaty and unclean (in a good way). May I suggest the Idols Tour merch booth start selling official Adam Lambert Freshening Moist Wipes? They'd certainly come in handy after "WLL."

Next, Adam did his best to further the noble cause of Muse Awareness with his majestic and stellar cover of that Brit band's "Starlight" (the only thing that could've improved that was if he rode onto the stage on the white unicorn from Muse's "Knights Of Cydonia" video), followed by his signature goosebump-inducing Donnie Darko tribute "Mad World," complete with the indigo mood lighting and fog that made his original TV performance of the song such a "moment." My head was close to exploding at this point, but when Allison returned to the stage to reprise her "Slow Ride" duet with Adam, the combined power of their superhumanly octave-straddling voices pretty much made what was left of my skull cave in. The merch booth ought to sell official Addison Helmets, too.

And finally, Adam finished with a Bowie medley (I NEVER thought I'd see the day that an Idol would head-explodingly perform "Life On Mars"!) during which he stripped off his Skingraft jacket to reveal a whole lot more of his own skin. Where were those moist-wipes when all the hot and bothered fans (of all persuasions) really needed them?

Oh, and by the way...Gene Simmons really needs to keep his long-tongued mouth shut. I just have to say that. Anyone who says Adam Lambert is "not a rock star" or has "ruined his career" is clearly an idiot. Gene wishes he could perform like Adam did last night.

OK, moving on. I will admit that after The Glambert's over-the-top tour de force, I had my doubts that Kris Allen would be able to keep up the momentum. I admit that I believed Adam seemed more like "headliner" material. But you know what? While Kris's vibe was definitely different, mellower and much more stripped-down, he totally delivered. Probably the contestant who exhibited the most growth this season--transitioning from under-the-radar "dark horse" to Idol champ--last night he really arrived, as much a pro as theater veteran Adam or any other Idol winner.

For instance, it was a risk for Kris to start his set a cappella with the first low-key first verse of his Kanye West cover "Heartless," especially after Adam's cranked-to-11 performance. But he had the confidence and charisma to pull it off. This was followed by a welcome new song on his setlist, the crowd-rousing and evangelical Killers cut "All These Things That I've Done," which thankfully replaced his snoozy coronation song "No Boundaries" (a tune that it seems even Kris secretly, or perhaps not-so-secretly, loathes). Kris did a kick-awesome job with the semi-foppish Killers tune, and by including it in his set, he injected his own version of "glam" into his repertoire, in his own dude-next-door way.

Kris also excelled on piano, with his star-making watershed song "Ain't No Sunshine" and Matchbox Twenty's "Bright Lights," the latter of which ended with a shredding guitar solo that brought to mind John Mayer at his best. By the time Kris crooned the Beatles' "Hey Jude," and was joined by his fellow Idols for the "na na na"s, the Staples Center was incandescently illuminated with spectators' cellphones and glowsticks. It was the performance of a champion, indeed.

The only proper follow-up for such a number, and the only proper way to wrap up this entire extravaganza, was of course a joyful group performance of that perennial song of triumph, that ubiquitous pop-culture touchstone, "Don't Stop Believin'." (Hey, if it's good enough for The Sopranos, Glee, and Rock Of Ages, it's good enough for the Idols.) Megan was sadly MIA due to being temporarily sidelined by food poisoning, but the top nine still sang their hearts out, and it made me happy that--despite all sorts of premature, cynical rumors of American Idol jumping the shark this year--I never stopped believin' in this show. I honestly believe this is the strongest AI cast yet, and last night's concert was proof.

I'll be eagerly awaiting all the Idols' albums, too. So get cracking, Los Angeles A&R reps--and sign these talented kids!

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