The “American Idol Live!” 2013 tour touched down in Newark, NJ, Wednesday night, with many of Season 12′s familiar themes — the undeniable awesomeness of Candice Glover and Kree Harrison, the inscrutable warbling of Lazaro Arbos (and its Pavlovian effect on teen girls) — in tact.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t surprises — good and bad — from the Top 10 finalists (plus sing-off winner Aubrey Cleland). Among them: Amber Holcomb’s mojo disappearing faster than Nicki Minaj at the end of the Idol season; Devin Velez developing a stage presence that (almost) matches his powerful pipes; Angie Miller getting torn between two personas; and the Idol Powers That Be displaying an impressive ineptitude with a selection of group numbers that were almost entirely inappropriate.
Let’s jump to a rundown of the show’s best and worst moments, shall we?
CONCERT MVP | Just as Season 12′s telecasts frequently peaked with Candice’s soulful, pitch-perfect performances, so too did the Newark tour stop reach its crescendo when its champ finally emerged at the end of the show for a four-song solo set — with one marked difference. Without the competitive pressures of the competition, Candice has become a looser, more vibrant performer, evidenced in her high-energy cover of Beyoncé’s “End of Time” as well as the sparkling, reggae-tinged original “In the Middle” (a very good bit of foreshadowing for her forthcoming debut CD, Music Speaks). Still, it was Candice’s pair of ballads that showcased her full vocal and emotional horsepower: She imbued her coronation single “I Am Beautiful” with so much conviction that I un-ironically became a Swaybot on the final chorus. And the effortless beauty of her jazzy twist on The Cure’s “Lovesong” was so transcendent that a hush fell over the Prudential Center crowd, lest anyone miss a single twist or turn of her delivery.
WORST SOLO PERFORMANCE | Preceding the final one-two punch of Kree and Candice was Lazaro Arbos’ baffling karaoke-bar rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory,” complete with almost-inaudible lower register, strained high notes and a white-socks-with-dark-pants-and-shoes combo that put the “ick” in ridiculous. The optimist in me wants to believe the teenage girls in the audience were screaming to drown out the sound of his vocals, but alas, until these misguided lasses learn that Google Image Search is a great source of male eye candy, the Lazaros of the world will always be able to move their share of concert tickets.
MOST SURPRISING PERFORMANCE | Kree’s “All Cried Out” and “Up to the Mountain” were as sublime as you’d expect — her voice really is as soothing as 1,000-thread-count sheets, and as rich as an Ina Garten dessert — but I was most delighted by her gritty cover of the Alabama Shakes’ “Hold On.” The song choice may have flummoxed half the concert audience, but in a post-Idol setting, I hope Kree manages to infuse her love of modern country with her excellent skills in the blues and roots-rock arenas. It may not be the most obvious commercial approach, but seeing how country radio only has room for two or three female solo acts anyhow, it might be wise for her to zig-a-zig-aaah when everyone else expects a zag, yes?
MOST DISAPPOINTING | Amber’s set got relegated to the opening half of the show, but instead of using it as an opportunity to dominate, she seemed to fade into the seizure-inducing backdrop of flashing landscapes — think Madonna’s “Ray of Light” on a clip-art budget — that accompanied her cover of “We Found Love.” No doubt, Season 12′s fourth-place finisher has a stronger, more pleasing voice than Rihanna, but Amber looked slightly embarrassed during the dance breakdown, and later, joined by Aubrey and Angie Miller on Ariana Grande’s “The Way,” she seemed to lose energy (or maybe interest) by the halfway point. What happened to the brassy kid who slayed “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?,” “She’s Leaving Home” and “My Funny Valentine” on my TV a few months back?
MOST IMPROVED | Devin Velez’s “Somos Novios (It’s Impossible)” reinforced the fact that, despite his shortcomings during the competition, he’s got a voice that’s big enough to fill an arena. What I didn’t expect, though, was the charisma he showed while upstaging fellow finalists Curtis Finch, Jr., and Burnell Taylor on a rendition of “Suit & Tie.”
MOST CONFUSING | Look, I recognize that a lot of Idol contestants are still works in progress in terms of figuring out their artistic direction, but third-place finisher Angie’s set was almost jarring in its transition from the sexy grind of Jessie J’s “Mama Knows Best” — which found Ms. Miller at her hammy, drama-student worst, writhing atop a piano — to a truly riveting version of the self-penned “You Set Me Free” where Angie (and her insanely luscious cascade of hair) actually played the piano. Whatever road Angie chooses in the future, she needs to remember that not everyone can be Katy Perry, nor should everyone want to.
BIGGEST SCENE-STEALER | God bless Janelle Arthur, who threw her pint-sized self into every single moment she was allowed on stage: Her committment to the choreography single-handedly sold what was an otherwise peculiar four-gal version of “Blurred Lines”; her gorgeous harmonies as a background vocalist on Paul Jolley’s “Blown Away” upgraded the entire thing from rock solid to fantastic; and her drama-filled reading of the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” (definitely one of the night’s highlights) proved she could easily be a headliner — if a label is smart enough to take a gamble. (Based on her original “Young and Reckless,” which sadly didn’t make her set list, we know girlfriend’s got the material.)
BIGGEST COMPLAINT | What I wouldn’t have given for a few extra solo performances — or a few thoughtfully selected duets — instead of the slapshod hodgepodge of group numbers that found the Idols tackling current radio hits that seemed to suit almost none of ‘em. I mean, did no one in charge of the Idol tour ever listen to the lyrics of “Blurred Lines” or fun.’s “We Are Young”? Did anyone really want to witness Candice and Kree being forced to cover One Direction? Is there ever an appropriate setting for Paul, Janelle and Kree to have to team up on the lyric “Everybody’s feeling sexy/ Holler if you’re ready”? If you answered “No” to all of the above questions, then you’re definitely feeling my pain, and (I suspect) the pain of the Idol Season 12 finalists.
That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the final one-two punch, a mashup of Anna Kendrick’s “Cups” and Phillip Phillips’ “Gone, Gone, Gone,” worked surprisingly well — while proving Candice’s voice is ridiculous in its versatility. Come to think of it, has anyone thought about a soulful twist on “Home” to help spur interest in Candice’s debut album? Hey, the 2014 Winter Olympics is gonna need an unofficial theme song…
Have you caught the “American Idol Live!” 2013 tour? What were your favorite and least favorite moments? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, commentary and video, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!