'American Idol Live!' 2012 Concert Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

phillip phillips jessica sancez volcano idol‘American Idol Live!’ 2012 touched down in Newark, N.J. on Tuesday night, and while the pacing of the show suffered more stops and starts than an octogenarian trying out a stick-shift for the first time, the Season 11 Top 10 nevertheless proved they have plenty of gas in their tanks as the tour enters its final two weeks.

Paired with the right material, a number of the finalists confirmed they can indeed command a stadium-sized crowd: Country gal Skylar Laine dropped charisma-bombs all the way to the cheap seats. Erika Van Pelt put on a display of vocal firepower that left me a little bitter that she only got one solo number. And freed from the prisons of theme weeks, Swaybots, and Randy Jackson-isms, the Season 11 champ and runner-up, Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez, got a chance to showcase where exactly they could (and, frankly, should) fit into the modern musical landscape. (I also had a revelation about the reason for Phillip’s inevitable victory that has nothing to do with that wretched WGWG acronym that clings to him like a leech to an open wound — but more on that at the end of this review.)

Most importantly, there were two particular performances– Elise Testone’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Joshua Ledet’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” — that were so spectacular, I had no choice but to roll my notes up into a tube and repeatedly hit myself in the leg as testimony to their righteousness.

But let’s go back to the very beginning….

The show kicked off with a peculiar video of 10 meteorites crashing to the surface of the Earth — surrender, Auto-Tune! surrender, J.Lo! — that, on impact, morphed into the Season 11 finalists. After that, 9 of the top 10 (Phillip was the no-show) ganged up for an unremarkable cover of My Chemical Romance’s “Sing,” and all I could think was that it had to be the brainstorm of a couple 19 Entertainment execs who’d watched one too many Glee reruns at the start of their summer vacation. (Leave such new directions to New Directions!)

For me, the real opening number was Deandre Brackensick’s “Master Blaster,” which allowed the lanky teenager to flex the growly, gutteral aspect of his vocal range and whip his hair back and forth to punctuate his jaunty spins. I doubt anyone left the Prudential Center feeling like the kid should’ve gone farther than his eighth-place finish, but he effectively set the tone for a first-half that favored upbeat party tunes over big, bombastic ballads. (I wouldn’t have objected if they’d let Deandre sneak in “I Like It” or maybe a Maxwell groove as a bookend, though.)

Skylar and Hollie Cavanagh kept folks on their feet with a duet of Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It,” the former diva adding a little twist of bitterness that saved it from pure karaoke-ism. (Carrie-Okie-ism? Sorry.) Nevertheless, you know these gals have serious pipes when they can color inside the lines drawn by Idol‘s Season 4 champ and barely break a sweat.

Speaking of pipes, Erika flexed hers with a stripped-down rendition of Pink’s “Glitter in the Air” that was far more riveting than anything she did during her Season 11 tenure. Denying Erika a second song — Idol Live! vets will recall that in Season 8, even Michael Sarver and Megan Joy weren’t limited to just one solo — seemed all the more egregious when it was followed up by a four-person rendition on “Moves Like Jagger.” It’s hard to imagine the Maroon 5 ditty would crack Joshua, Hollie, Erica, or Colton Dixon’s lists of “Top 500 Songs I Really Want to Cover,” so what, really, was the point of it? Maybe to prepare us for the nadir that was Heejun Han’s version of John Legend’s “Green Light.” Despite his goofy “I’m in on the joke — really!” expressions, Heejun comes off like the annoying reality-show contestant who puts on urban affectations, not realizing his shtick is several months (years?) past its expiration date. There was a certain irony in Heejun repeating the chorus “I’m ready to go right now”; heckling him with a well-timed “then go already!”, however, seemed too cruel by half.

The ninth-place finisher then fully embraced the joke of his Idol successes by donning a pink-and-zebra shirt for a version of LMFAO’s “Party Rock” alongside Deandre and Jessica. What came as a total shock, however, was the way the Lady Sanchez used her monster-truck voice to elevate the goofy club hit into something more rousing than it had any right to be.  As Jessica belted the refrain, “Put your hands up to the sound,” I was all, “Okay, girl! I will most indubitably put my hands up to the sound!”

Again, where an added solo (or a juicy duet) could’ve gone to Elise or Hollie or Skylar or Deandre, we got Colton, Joshua, DeAndre, and Heejun teaming up for Neon Trees’ “Everybody Talks.” It wasn’t bad, but it’ll soon be forgotten like whatever you had for breakfast on July 10, 2012.

What won’t soon evaporate from the memory banks, though, is Elise’s raucous, rock-star cover of “Whole Lotta Love,” which oozed with confidence and sex appeal, and led to an extended Middle-Eastern-esque breakdown that had the crowd screaming wild approval — until she brought them to almost total silence with a whispered “wayyyy down insiiiide.” Elise’s wicked grin as she ripped the lid off the Prudential with the delicacy of a feather was a thing of precise beauty. Her followup, “Rumour Has It” (with Erika and Hollie on backup) was pretty and passionate, too, filled with nifty riffs that wisely departed from Adele’s original template.

Given the dubious task of following Elise on stage, Colton’s version of Switchfoot’s “Meant to Live” felt limp as an overcooked noodle — even if the folks at 19 spent more on his “haunted asylum” backdrop than all the previous performances put together. “It’s like having Springsteen open for Nickleback!” read a text message I got from erstwhile Idoloonies guest Adam Baranker. Sad, but all too true.

A little more promising was an original track called “Never Gone,” from what Colton promised the crowd would be a soon-to-drop CD. “I’m still standing here/ You know I didn’t disappear/ Now the lights are on/ I was never gone,” he wailed over a melody that sounded like it got shaken out of the recycling bin after David Cook’s most recent recording session. “Piano Man,” meanwhile, provided a capper to Colton’s set to which the enthusiastic crowd could sway along — and a perfect segue to intermission.

Unfortunately, the show’s producers instead tacked on a hideous lost outtake from From Justin to Kelly grafted onto a low-budget Old Navy ad. I kid you not, the entire Top 10 (sans Phillip) took the stage in bright neon beachwear to tackle One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” while a giant beach ball pulsated against the backdrop. All that was missing was a chyron trumpeting “Board shorts for $12.99!” (Clearly, the bonus prize for winnning Idol is avoiding this kind of credibility-immolating grouptastrophe. Congrats, P2!) Joshua’s holleration added a little juice to the half-empty glass, but mentally, I’d already headed to the concession stand to find out just how much one can charge for a Miller Lite without being arrested for petit larceny.

The second half of the show was, not surprisingly, stronger than the first. Jessica had concertgoers scrambling from the bathroom as she tore into “Best Thing I Never Had” like a cheetah getting its first taste of gazelle. If Idol wants to tweak anything about its format in 2013, it should focus on letting singers like La Sanchez occasionally cover songs that might actually get played on the radio, as opposed to the 27th attempt to resuscitate Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Better still was her sublimely stank version of Alicia Keys’ “How Come You Don’t Call Me” that forced me to crinkle my nose and scribble “SMDH!” in my notes. Jessica’s scatting on the second verse, her pleading growl on the chorus, and the enthusiastic dance moves from backup singers Joshua and Deandre made this one of the night’s best numbers.

The third- and eighth-place finishers continued their hilarious antics (including a synchronized booty swivel!) as Jessica reprised Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary” and made me wish she’d been allowed one (or even two) more numbers before having to pass the mic. (Note to producers: Jessica was, in fact, the Season 11 runner-up, so maybe she should have at least one more solo than the guy who finished seventh, even if she probably sells fewer t-shirts to screaming teenage girls? Yes? No? Maybe?)

There was little time to wallow, though, because yes, like a shotgun blast, Skylar scattered herself around the stage for a furious cover of “Gunpowder and Lead” that should be required listening for any guy who’s thinking about using Chris Brown as a relationship role-model. Her followup of “Stay With Me” punctuated the fact that no one in Season 11 has better stage presence or got stuck with a more incongrously awful backdrop. (A wheat field? WHAT?) Of course, on her final drawn-out, arena-piercing refrain of “tonight you better staaaaaayyyyyy with meeeee,” Ms. Laine also reminded the audience she’s one heckuva vocalist, too.

Hollie, likewise, proved her diminutive frame had no bearing on the XXL size of her voice while taking on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Demi Lovato’s “Give Your Heart a Break.” That said, she never quite commanded the space with the authority of her more seasoned comrades. My notes on “RITD” are telling: “Wish I could see this performance in about five years.”

Joshua, meanwhile, had no such problems: He’s blessed with an instrument so gargantuan and a showmanship so dazzling that one almost worries if the modern record-business will have any clue what to do with him. Certainly, his take on Bruno Mars’ “Runaway Baby” provided one plausible direction, as the mild-mannered Idol contestant convincingly donned the white jacket and gold lapels of a randy, throwback-style emcee on the prowl. (Side note: I momentarily mistook the backing trio of Elise, Deandre, and Erika for Elise, Deandre, and Colton. Yep, Mr. Dixon and Ms. Van Pelt have practically become hair twins over the last couple months!)

It was Josh’s second performance, though, that made the audience keenly aware of why J.Lo, Randy, and Steven couldn’t help but give him Standing Os all season with the casualness of bag ladies spreading crumbs for pigeons. The electricity generated by “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” spread like a lightning storm: There were rumbles and flashes as the song ebbed and flowed, Joshua’s wail piercing the room until a final crescendo that left him standing, arms outstretched at his sides, and soaking up the thunderous response of an entire arena rising to its feet.

By comparison, Josh’s followup duet with Jessica on “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” wasn’t ever going to be quite as exciting, even if someone had mercifully ditched the awful mountain/sunrise neon-sims backdrop. Nevertheless, their “anything you can do” interplay at the end of the song was a treat for old-school Idol fans who don’t mind a little diva grandstanding here and there.

Despite the fact that there wasn’t a second intermission, the concert most certainly rebooted after Joshua’s set, with a dramatic montage of Phillip’s Season 11 coronation that got the audience primed for the reigning champion. The blast of the band overpowered Phillip’s acoustic guitar on “Superstition,” and while he sounded rock-solid, a part of me was secretly wishing for a stripped-down take on his audition ditty, “Thriller,” instead.

Far more impressive was a sultry twist on Usher’s “Nice and Slow” that, were it a movie scene, might be William Hurt throwing a piece of lawn furniture through Kathleen Turner’s sliding glass door and ravaging her on the spot in Body Heat. Yeah, it was honestly that sexy, even if the closing refrain of “Gangster’s Paradise” was copped from Kris Allen’s playbook.

Given Phillip’s lack of participation in all the preceding group numbers and duets, it seemed a little odd to bring out Elise Testone for a duet on Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” especially given that the ubiquitous hit’s pop-culture moment peaked a couple months ago. That said, a second collaboration with an Idol diva — Damien Rice’s “Volcano,” with Jessica as a background/duet partner — provided the night’s most haunting moment. With Phillip in the foreground, his vocal as intimate as a vocal could be in a big arena, and Siren Jessica perched above him in a wisp of a red dress, the duo’s disparate voices melded perfectly and unexpectedly, the “she’s still too young” refrain all the more stark given Ms. Sanchez’s tender age.

As if it wasn’t already clear Phillip is at his best in his most restrained moments, he wrapped with a version of his bubbling hit “Home,” DeAndre and Colton on background vocals. As P2 reached the soaring chorus, and the lights illuminated the rapturous audience, it was as if the lights went on in my brain, too. Phillip’s Idol ascendancy can’t (or shouldn’t) just be attributed to “cute white straight guy with guitar in hand”: Phillip’s popularity with Idol voters affirms the triumph of earnestness over spectacle.

Nigel Lythgoe & Co. can schedule results-show performances of J.Lo and an army of backup dancers, Katy Perry and folks dressed like aliens, or LMFAO being undeniably ridiculous, but that’s like piling massive quantities of food on a plate and smothering it with cheese, when sometimes/most of the time you just want a simply prepared protein with a nice side dish or two. There’s a sincerity, yes even an earnestness, to Phillip and his music that’s delicious in its relative quietude. To paraphrase the lyric of his lead single, Phillip makes the stage his home, and in an era where modern music can sometimes feel too noisy or overprocessed, “Home” feels refreshingly like where the heart is.

Have you caught the Idol Live! 2012 tour? What were the highlights and lowlights for you? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol and reality TV news, reviews and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!