Ryan Seacrest said it best at the top of the show: Tuesday night's (May 19) final "American Idol" performance episode was the decisive showdown between "the acoustic rocker versus the glam rocker ... Conway versus California ... the guy next door versus the guyliner."
And when Adam Lambert and Kris Allen came down the center stairs, the difference couldn't have been clearer. Lambert was rocking a black leather jacket, tight black jeans, black fingerless gloves and a black shirt accented by a long silver scarf-looking necklace, while Allen went the James Dean route with a more modestly cut black leather jacket, blue jeans and a white T-shirt.
With three songs each, Lambert, 27, opened the night reprising his acclaimed cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World." Looking comfortable on a fog-enshrouded stage that must have been familiar to him from his musical-theater days, Lambert descended a set of steps center stage in silhouette, his black trench coat cutting a dramatic figure.
Adding some spooky percussion effects to the already haunting song, Lambert nailed the performance again, finding a bit more restraint this time and going for maximum emotional impact. And once more, the judges approved. "I love that you're showing your sensitive side to come out here and start this great duel," Randy Jackson enthused, awarding the singer an A-plus.
Kara DioGuardi praised him again for the song that she said proved he was an "incredible artist" and changed the game for all the other singers in the competition. Paula Abdul liked the more subdued, haunting second take, but Simon Cowell thought it was a bit "over-theatrical" and complained that it reminded him of "Phantom of the Opera."
(See what Jim Cantiello had to say about the night in his "American Idol" live blog.)
Allen's personal pick was his breakthrough song, Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," an aching soul ballad that he performed at a grand piano. Even in the truncated "Idol" version, Allen gave the song a wide musical arc, beginning with a soft vocal accompanied only by piano, then building to a vocal and musical crescendo just a minute in and ending alone again with a sweet falsetto note.
Saying he saved some of the best for last, Kara and Randy called it one of Allen's best performances of the season. "You have a way of creating an intimate bond with everybody in the audience," Kara said. "You make us feel like you're singing it to us, and that is so hard to do." With his usual blend of honesty and smiling cruelty, Simon admitted that when Allen's name was called last week, he wasn't sure America had made the right choice, "but I absolutely take all that back now after that performance."
Round two featured songs chosen by "Idol" creator Simon Fuller, who picked classic R&B singer Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" for Lambert. Wearing a gray suit with a powder-blue tie, the Los Angeles singer narrowed his eyes and mixed in some testifying gospel grit to his piercing wails, ending with a soaring note that again brought the crowd to its feet.
For Randy, it was unbelievable. Kara called it his best interpretation of a song yet, thanks to his blend of the high notes and the restraint he showed to highlight the song's emotion. "That's your winning combination," she said. Paula promised that no matter what happened, he would be "iconic," and Simon praised him for being "100 percent back in the game."
For Allen, Fuller picked Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." Seated on a chair, strumming his guitar, Allen gave the iconic R&B protest song a jammy, 1960s folk vibe, accompanied by funky Latin percussion and a laid-back, coffeehouse groove.
Randy said the song was a perfect choice for our turbulent times and praised the vocal but feared that Allen's arrangement was a bit light for the 7,000-capacity Nokia Theatre. Kara gave props to Allen for being true to himself all along and not playing to the competition. "And I like that Simon Fuller picked a socially conscious song for you, because you're the kind of artists that can deliver that message and uplift people, make them think, make them feel and make them change," she said.
Cowell loved the song but said it sounded like "three friends in their bedroom strumming along to Marvin Gaye," docking Allen for being too laid-back and not making the song his own.
The night's last performance had both finalists singing this year's winner's song, "No Boundaries," co-written by DioGuardi, along with British pop singer-turned-songwriter Cathy Dennis (
Rocking acid-washed black-and-white jeans and a black bedazzled jacket, Lambert was in his comfort zone on the turgid ballad, which features typical "Idol" winner-song lines like: "Seconds, hours, so many days/ You know what you want, but how long can you wait?/ Every moment lasts forever." Soaring into the chorus about roads to nowhere, going higher and deeper, breaking rules, making it through the pain and not giving up on your dreams, Lambert rocked the diva-ready crowd pleaser as if it were written specifically for him.
Randy didn't love it, saying it was a bit pitchy. And maybe she was a bit biased, but Kara said she was moved and thanked Adam for giving her a moment near the end of the season.
"Adjectives can't express what you've brought to this show," Paula gushed. Mocking the song's clichéd lyrics, Simon again called Lambert one of the best, most original contestants in the show's history. "The whole idea about doing a show like this is that you hope that you can find a worldwide star," he continued. "I genuinely believe with all my heart that we have found that with you."
Allen's take on the song was predictably a bit different, with a simpler, more acoustic rock-ballad arrangement. He appeared to struggle at first to keep up with the lyrics but grew stronger as the tune built momentum, showing off some of his more powerful vocal moves by the end.
Acknowledging that Allen's vocals were off, Randy gave him props for how well he's done in the competition and said he thought the song fit Allen's vocal style even more than Lambert's. Kara wished that people would vote for Allen based on the entire season, while Paula called it one of the most compelling showdowns to date. Simon recalled how Allen came in with "no confidence" during his first audition and, despite his repeated disses of Allen during the season, told him he thoroughly deserved to be on the stage.
The show ended with former "Idol" winner and country superstar Carrie Underwood singing this year's farewell song, Mötley Crüe's "Home Sweet Home" as a montage of the season's highlights scrolled behind her.
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