LOS ANGELES — On Thursday night, the latest crop of [url id="/news/topic/american_idol/index.jhtml"]"American Idol"[/url] superstars returned to the city that helped make them famous as the American Idols Live! tour descended upon L.A.'s Staples Center.
It was my first opportunity to get to see the infamous tour — it always hits the NYC area when we're super busy with Video Music Awards stuff — and it did not disappoint.
First of all, the energy in the room was dizzying. Before the show even began, the crowd erupted anytime L.A.'s own Adam Lambert popped up onscreen in never-ending monitor loops advertising Ford, Coke and Disney World. (It wouldn't be "Idol" without the product placement!)
The nearly three-hour concert kicked off exactly the way you'd want it to — with a full band jamming to the show's addictively cheesy theme song. Even better? The video graphics that went along with the overture made you feel like you were inside the opening credits. Fans have seen that androgynous robot hold up a microphone at least 500 times. The "Idol" tour lets you feel like you are the genitalia-free robot. I shouted executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz's name just to make it even more authentic.
The first half of the show is made up of short sets from the "bottom six" of the top 10. But what might sound like a marathon of "meh" on paper actually ended up being a string of surprises! Michael Sarver kicked off the show with infectious enthusiasm and an unexpected disco R&B shuffle. (Ever wondered what Ne-Yo's "Closer" would sound like being sung by a jovial white guy with a twang? It's better than you think.)
And while I wouldn't say Megan Joy looked comfortable onstage (accidentally crashing her mug into a microphone stand didn't help), at least she sounded better than she ever did on "Idol." Final "caw caws" included! Even Samantha Ronson and Lindsay Lohan agreed — the celebs were apparently two of the many fans in attendance, and they have the tweets to prove it!
Matt Giraud and Scott MacIntyre, the two piano men of season eight, didn't disappoint, particularly with a sequence during the group number that concluded act one. We all knew Matt had potential thanks to his Hollywood week "Georgia on My Mind" performance, and while his "Idol" journey was mired in "Who am I?" identity crises, Matt has found his footing big-time. His confidence was up 500 percent, his falsetto was strong, and his set featured more runs than Montezuma's revenge. The weak spot in his set list was, not surprisingly, a Fray song he bombed on the show. Don't get me wrong, his tour performance was miles better than the "Idol" abomination, but for a guy who is finally figuring out his own swagger, it was disappointing to hear Matt ape Fray frontman Isaac Slade's annoying Kermit the Frog stylings instead of showcasing his own vocal twists.
Scott also showed up to change minds. His time on "Idol" was spent awkwardly singing drippy lite-FM staples, but on tour he absolutely destroys (in a good way) Keane's "Bend and Break" and Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles." I know, I know. Keane and Vanessa Carlton are also drippy life-FM staples, but give the guy credit for finally choosing songs written in this decade. Not to mention that his voice sounded richer than a dozen flourless chocolate cakes and his hilarious onstage banter proved that Scott could give Normund Gentle a run for his money (though I'm not sure if I was supposed to giggle when the visually impaired singer uttered Carlton's lyric about "staring blankly ahead").
On the R&B tip, Anoop's bump-and-grind-filled performance was the first one of the night that had the audience snapping pics like paparazzi. But it was Lil Rounds who was an absolute revelation with her high-energy, sass-filled set. The way she strutted around while covering Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys explained why the four judges were beyond harsh to the poor girl when she floundered on "Idol." By the time Lil stripped down to a halter top to sing "Single Ladies," I was convinced that there was no place on Earth more divine at that very moment.
The second half of the show kicked off with an Allison Iraheta mini-concert that was as bitchin' as it was brief. The 17-year-old has the vocal prowess of a singer twice her age and she already has the "diva" staging down pat: The youngster sang while a giant fan blew her hair back like she was Mariah Carey. Adorable! I also have to give it up to her for singing Heart's "Barracuda," which was so good it made me forget about Fergie's embarrassing screaming (and flipping!) "Idol Gives Back" rendition.
The Staples Center exploded once Danny Gokey bounded onstage like an eager puppy. I have to admit, seeing the "Idol" star sing "P.Y.T." in the exact spot where Michael Jackson's coffin was displayed nine days ago was a tad uncomfortable and unfortunate. But he soon won me over with a soulful take on Santana's "Maria Maria," which had a mid-song-striptease-and-salsa-with-a-microphone-stand breakdown that had the 60-year-old women in the crowd going crazy. He wrapped up his four-song suite with back-to-back Rascal Flatts: a new and improved "What Hurts the Most" (his phrasing much stronger than it was during "Idol" — but what was with the "Lion King" sun background behind him?!) and what was either an uncomfortably sappy or breathtakingly moving "My Wish," depending on whether you think his story is inspiring or exploitive. Seems like the majority of "Idol" fans at the Staples Center were in the former category because the vibe in the room suddenly switched to one of those Time Life "Songs 4 Worship" commercials where people weep and wave their hands in the air as they sing to the Lord. (The godly lighting backdrop and gospel rant during the finale certainly led to that feeling, I'm sure.)
Then the show quickly changed gears from angels to demons, with glamazon Adam Lambert emerging from the back of the stage like an alien from the planet Rocktune.
The over-the-top praise Adam received during his unprecedented run on "Idol" — including Kara famously proclaiming him a "rock gawwd!" — is almost an understatement. As far as stage presence goes, he can't be beat. A thousand Lady Gagas could have descended on Downtown Los Angeles singing Madonna tunes while making out with Britney Spears, and I still don't think a single audience member would have been able to look away from Adam's riveting onstage antics. He's got Elvis' snarl, Gene Simmons' cockiness and Klaus Nomi's aura of mystique. And just as I was worried that his set was veering into self-indulgent territory (David Bowie's "Life on Mars"?), the band segued into another Thin White Duke classic, "Fame," and Adam sashayed and preened like an otherworldly creature while unleashing the incomparable vocals we've come to expect. (Wouldn't he be amazing at the VMAs? Like maybe joining already-confirmed musical guests Muse for a version of "Feeling Good," which he performed on "Idol"? He covered their song "Starlight" during last night's set.)
I won't say it's unfortunate that "Idol" winner Kris Allen has to follow Adam's epic space oddity, because Allen definitely holds his own. In some ways, Kris' set list is the most masterfully constructed of the entire tour. He begins with the Kanye "Heartless" cover that helped propel him to victory. Then he smartly ditches the anemic "No Boundaries" coronation single for a rousing Killers tune, "All These Things That I've Done." (Audible gasps could be heard as he dropped his voice down to the depths of his chest on the catchy "I got soul but I'm not a soldier" refrain, exposing a deep bass he kept a secret during his "Idol" journey. Why were you holding out on us, Kris?)
He tickled the ivories — and sang with an appealing Elton John-esque cadence — during Matchbox Twenty's "Bright Lights," before hopping up and delivering a delirious guitar solo. And just when you thought Kris was ending on a high note with his stellar "Ain't No Sunshine," he busted out the acoustic guitar for "Hey (Friggin') Jude." Show-off.
The entire group (minus an apparently sick Megan Joy) joined Allen for the never-ending "na na nas." Just as I was ready to grab my $25 collector's program and head for the exit to beat the rush, the top 10 returned with a final group number, Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." Yes, it's cliché, and yes, you might roll your eyes at the 400 disco balls that emerge from the ceiling for no reason whatsoever, but in many ways it's the perfect winking tribute to a show that began as a glorified karaoke competition and has transformed into a cultural force that digs up nothing short of (wait for it... wait for it...) artistry.
Get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.