‘American Idol’ celebrates 10th season with group-centric summer tour

Thia Megia, Lauren Alaina, and Pia Toscano take on Katy Perry's "Firework" at the 2011 American Idols Live Tour at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA on July 12th (PHOTO CREDIT: Karen Datangel/karen-on.com).

The last time the American Idol live tour followed an unconventional format was for season 6, when then 17-year-old (Oh, Randy Jackson, how you never let us live that down) Jordin Sparks was crowned the winner. Excessive group numbers, having one, two, or three solos each if you weren’t Sparks or runner-up Blake Lewis, performing in a mostly random order of elimination, and borrowing heavily from the hot digital downloads list at the time made a little more sense, as some of those Idols shared very similar styles and others were still struggling to find their own. But the season 10 pack, headed by another 17-year-old winner Scotty McCreery, is more diverse and more seasoned after the series, and perhaps the typical mini-concert format would have worked better for them. Maybe concert producers wanted to revert back to the group number-heavy format to reflect this season’s youth, thanks to the reduction of age eligibility to audition for the show. Or maybe they wanted to feature more of the season’s “robbed,” even if only doing a lot of background vocals. Whatever the motive, the departure from the larger solo sets slightly limited some performers from showcasing their true artistry and identities and gave some less stage time than they deserved–but it definitely succeeded in achieving a feel-good escape for hardcore Idol fans and casual music lovers alike.

The American Idols Live Tour 2011 hit my home turf a couple of weeks ago and I attended the July 12th show at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA. I didn’t watch season 10 much at all, but I saw performances and episodes here and there and I had an overall idea of who I liked and didn’t like. And like every other Idol concert I had attended since season 4, I came out of this particular show liking everybody…I think.

I suppose one good thing about the unusual show order and production is that it’s easy to get a group doing an up-tempo number to kick the show off on a high note, instead of having the last-place winner go first and sing a super mellow song to reflect their personal style. The AI10 ladies–Lauren Alaina (Who had twisted her ankle a couple of days before, showed off a bedazzled boot, and required some assistance from other Idols to get around on stage), Haley Reinhart, Pia Toscano, Thia Megia, and Naima Adedapo–emerged in complementary sequined costumes to sing and shuffle along to Lady Gaga‘s “Born This Way.” For a male-dominated show, the ladies were featured more in quantity for the live concert, by being a part of more group numbers and singing back-up for each other and the guys.

Recently signed Toscano, whose ninth-place ouster is considered one of the most shocking in Idol history, kicked off the solos with “Empire State of Mind.” As a native New Yorker, it may have been a choice out of sentimentality, but it was a bland one for her to perform. However, her original debut single “This Time” makes up for it–it’s one of the first times a non-winner or runner-up has had the opportunity to perform an original song at the summer tour, and the mid-tempo tune allowed her to take more command of the stage as well as showcase her incredible pipes.

Unfortunately, for hometown sweetheart Megia (She was born in Hayward, some minutes away from Oakland), she used Selena Gomez‘s “Who Says” for her one solo. It’s cute and age-appropriate, but her voice is better than the song. If we’re going with the Current Hits theme, perhaps revisiting something by Adele, the artist she covered for her audition, would have made a better impression. In contrast, Adedapo performing “On the Floor” seemed to only be an excuse to feature a video segment with judge Jennifer Lopez (Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler also appeared before renditions of songs connected with them), but her high-energy African dance routine made her an exciting highlight of the entire night.

Having appeared in the group numbers in the first half, Alaina opened the second half of the show with her signature style of girly and feisty country, AKA songs performed by some of Idol’s other country girls–Carrie Underwood‘s “Flat on the Floor” and Alaina’s debut “Like My Mother Does,” which originally appeared on season 7’s Kristy Lee Cook‘s post-Idol album Why Wait. She connects well with her audience–I can see her being a crossover success one day sooner or later. However, the title of best overall female belongs to the sultry-voiced Reinhart, who stuck to her guns with reprises of her epic “House of the Rising Sun” and “Benny and the Jets.” A performer with natural ease and with an intriguing quality to her vocals and musical style, she was easily a crowd favorite and earned some new fans in the process (Like me). Oh look, she just signed a record deal too! Go Haley!

Now, about those boys: I didn’t care for many of them while on the show, but watching them perform made me see how worthy they are of the love and support they receive from their fans. My favorite guy Paul McDonald deserved at least one more solo and it would have been marvelous to see him on the guitar. Instead, I saw him bouncing and running around to “Maggie May”–and I loved feeding off that energy. My other favorite guy Jacob Lusk went with “Never Too Much” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” showing off some unreal vocal range and ability as well as a genuine good time.

Stefano Langone, Casey Abrams, and local guy James Durbin are all as different as can be (Hell, everyone in this group is), but they all earned my respect equally. Langone’s renditions of Bruno Mars‘ “Grenade” and Usher‘s “DJ Got Us Falling in Love” demonstrated his cool R&B sound, instrumental abilities, and even his dance talent (On the latter). Bass player Abrams love for music and performing is infectious for those who watch him, given his own spins on songs like Santana‘s “Smooth” and Maroon 5‘s “Harder to Breathe.” Then there’s Durbin, whose loud and statement-making “Uprising” by Muse and rock classic “Sweet Child O’Mine” brought the house down.

Seeing McCreery being introduced on stage after a montage of all ten American Idol winning moments played on screen was a brilliant tribute for the tenth anniversary of the show. However, I found myself sitting down for most of his set, which included “Gone” (My favorite performance from him), “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not,” “I Love You This Big,” and the song with the now-infamous lyrics “Baby lock them doors and turn the lights down low” (Yes, I know it’s “Your Man” by Josh Turner). He was personally never the type of country artist I enjoy listening to, but I hear a timelessness to his voice and see that he’s a seasoned performer beyond his 17 years–and he definitely lives up to his own star power.

While the group numbers were fun, it was better to see the more intimate duets. Toscano and Langone soared and meshed well on Rihanna‘s “California King Bed,” and the country kids McCreery and Alaina melted hearts with their rendition of “When You Say Nothing at All” from the Notting Hill soundtrack. Most memorably, Reinhart and Abrams’ live reprise of “Moanin'” delightfully possessed the chemistry and originality–and scatting and growling galore. The closing medley, which featured Whitesnake‘s “Here I Go Again,” Aerosmith‘s “Walk This Way,” and the Glee-inspired Journey picks of “Faithfully” and “Any Way You Want It / Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin'” was a lovable finale for a jubilant evening.

It could have been better organized and better choices could have been made, but in the end, all eleven of these up-and-coming stars were able to live the dream and give us the music we love in a way that only they can. That’s the joy of that little show called American Idol–ten seasons and counting.

FLICKR GALLERY: American Idols Live Tour 2011 @ Oracle Arena (Oakland, CA) – 07.12.11

“This Time” – Pia Toscano (Maybe about 30-40 seconds cut off in the beginning)

“When You Say Nothing at All” – Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina

Finale/Curtain Call – Top 11

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