I had pretty realistic expectations going into the 2009 American Idols Live show on its first stop in Portland. Despite all the hype and hoopla, the reality is, these ten finalists are just at the beginnings of their careers. They've just crossed the threshold from semi-pro to the big leagues and this concert in Portland was their very first big arena show.
As a show I found it to be pretty choppy and extremely uneven. The staging was set up with a huge barrier between the audience and the performers. A stage which jetted out into the audience or a theater in the round set up, like they had with the Jonas Brothers, would have been a much better option. The evening was broken into two acts. The first one had performances from Michael Sarver, Megan Joy, Scott MacIntyre, Lil Rounds, Anoop Desai and Matt Giraud, followed by a group song featuring these six performers. The second act featured Allison Iraheta, Danny Gokey, Adam Lambert and Kris Allen, and then a finale song with all ten.
The only 'coloring outside the lines' came when Adam Lambert invited Allison Iraheta back up to do a duet of "Slowride". Other than that, the evening was as programed as it could possibly get. Each Idol did grab the mic during their set for some banter but it was only Allison Iraheta who really connected with the audience. Others, like Danny Gokey, came off poorly and preachy. The show wasn't about the Idols talking, it was about them singing, and for the most part each Idol represented pretty well.
Michael Sarver's passion seemed to fill the gaps as he sang "I'm in Love with a Girl" by Gavin Degraw and "Closer" by Ne-Yo. He sported a white jacket with an enormous cross on it. His performance was fine and well within the line of an 'opening act'.
Megan Joy came out with a much sexier look than we've seen for her, a bright pink dress and coiffed blond hair. Her rendition of Corrine Baily Rae's "Put Your Records On" was pretty close to the performance she gave on the show. It didn't win any new fans over, but it wasn't bad. Unfortunately her rendition of Amy Winehouse's "Tears Dry on Their Own" didn't come off as well and you could see why she's been branded as one of the more 'unlikeable' Idols.
Of all the American Idols, Scott MacIntyre was the most improved from his performances on the show. He emerged from below the stage behind a grand piano. It was clear that behind the piano is Scott's sweet spot. His rendition of Keane's "Bend and Break" was sharp and he breathed new life into Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles". I was disappointed that Scott only played two songs and would have liked to seen more from him.
Lil Rounds proved yet again that she can really sing, but something was missing from her performance. She opened with Mary J Blige's "Be Without You" (a style she was constantly urged to sing during the show) but the audience didn't seem to connect with it. Her rendition of Alicia Keys's "No One" was solid, but sound alike and "Single Ladies" by Beyoncé had some great energy, but it seemed to fall apart at the end. Lil Rounds seemed mighty alone on that big stage and I think the show missed a huge opportunity to support her with some dancers. On "Single Ladies" she talked about working with a choreographer, but it ended up just being her strutting around the stage. If anything they could have brought the backup singers forward, or something so she didn't seem so lost in the big space.
Anoop Desai was the first of the Idols to really connect with the crowd. A wave of flashbulbs fired off as he emerged from the center of the stage signing Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind". Anoop was dressed in preppy/nerd chic and sported some thick rimmed glasses mid-way through the set. Anoop followed with "Mad" by Ne-Yo and then his signature "My Prerogative" by Bobby Brown. Musically Anoop isn't the strongest of the Idols – Lil Rounds vocally eclipsed him – but Anoop has a charisma and style that fills the stage. He never looked alone up there and seems to have some of the raw goods to become a star. His set wasn't earth shattering but it was extremely entertaining.
Matt Giraud seemed to have something to prove, and he did that with his set. With a big stardom presence he was the first Idol to really get the crowd on their feet with The Black Crows "Hard to Handle". He then slowed it down a bit with Ray Charles's "Georgia", which came off fairly well, although I really didn't like the arrangement. Surprisingly Giraurd closed with "I Found You" by The Fray, which is odd because during the show the judges specifically indicated that it wasn't the best song for him, and I have to agree.
The medley that followed was okay. Throughout the season the group numbers were never the real strong points. This time around it felt a little choppy and Idol versus Idol. A highlight of the duet was dueling pianos with Scott MacIntyre and Matt Giraud singing Billy Joel's "Tell Her About It". In that match up I enjoyed Scott's performance more. The weakest pairing of the medley was Megan and Lil who didn't sound good together at all.
What followed was an excruciatingly long, energy-sucking 20 minute intermission where we sat and listened to ads and music videos of past American Idol winners. The break wouldn't have been so misplaced if they had some sort of fun or creative intermission video clips playing (like a retrospective on the show). It was an opportunity missed.
The second half started with a bang and Allison Iraheta made up for the energy suck of the intermission. She opened with an extremely energetic rendition of Pink's "So What". Allison played a few of the refrains on her guitar, but not well. She is so energetic and fun and I think she would have done better without the guitar. Allison continued with Janis Joplin's "Cry Baby" which was fantastic. As she let loose, she really showed a real comfort on the stage. At one point during "Cry Baby" she did really embody Joplin. It wasn't a mimic or impression, but something much deeper. Her talk to the audience seemed to really connect and it showed a real presence and charisma. She closed her set with a fantastic performance of Heart's "Barracuda". I was disappointed that she only sang three songs. It was at this point I wished the show were the top 5 and not the top 10.
Of all the performances, I was most disappointed by Danny Gokey. I really like Gokey and enjoyed his performances on the show, but what worked on the small screen didn't quite work as well on the big stage. Danny Gokey opened with Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T." without any form of comment or tribute to the artist's death. He followed on with Santana's "Maria Maria" which had him dancing around seemingly having fun on stage, but it felt a little stiff and forced and he didn't quite have the audience along with him. The highlight of his set was "What Hurts the Most" by Rascal Flatts; it was the only point in the set where I felt any genuine passion. Danny Gokey followed the song with an 'inspirational', "you can do anything, don't let adversity get in your way" talk. It just didn't connect, so when he went into Rascal Flatts "My Wish" I felt like I was at a bad Christian Rock concert.
Gokey was immediately forgotten after Adam Lambert's explosive opening. The crowd went crazy as he belted out Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love". A lot of the things that I felt didn't work in Lambert's performances on the small screen were the very things that made seeing him live in an arena so fantastic. His opening number was pure electricity and left absolutely no doubt that he's a rock star. I was really shocked at just how amazing hearing Adam Lambert sing Zeppelin was. He followed with an extremely strong version of Muse's "Starlight" and then slowed it down with "Mad World". Although the live version of "Mad World" wasn't as magical as on the show, it was still fantastic. He pulled the entire audience in with the song and showed how easily he could warp the tempo and tone on stage. Adam called Allison on stage and the two of them did Foghat's "Slow Ride". My son turned to me and said, "Isn't that a song from Guitar Hero?!" (interesting how times have changed). Adam and Allison's chemistry were fantastic and the song was spot on. Adam finished his set with a medley of David Bowie songs including "Life on Mars", "Fame" and "Let's Dance". It was fun and playful, but I would have enjoyed more big rock like Queen or Kiss. Still, Lambert showed he's the real deal and his performance was so strong, I'll definitely make a point to see him when he returns on his own.
During Adam's set it became pretty clear how limited the staging of the show was. "Whole Lotta Love" screamed for some sort of pyrotechnics and his melody of Bowie songs could have been a huge production number with dancers and effects. It was a huge opportunity lost and one of the most noticeable failings of the show as a whole.
Kris Allen emerged from the floor in the center of the stage to the screams of the fans. They dropped a curtain behind him and the rest of the band (an odd move) and he held silent with his acoustic guitar in hand, for just a little too long. What followed though was one of the highlights of the entire show. Allen performed Kanye West's "Heartless" in a way that made it clear that he's made it his own. The song sounded even better live and is the corner stone of Allen's success. Kris Allen was pitch perfect with his performance of "No Boundaries", which isn't my favorite song, but Allen finds hooks in it to make it into something much more beautiful and strong than the source material. Allen's emotion and connection to the audience peaked with "Ain't No Sunshine" by Bill Withers. I think it's Allen's humble honesty in his performance that really wins the audience over. If Kris Allen came out with the ego of Matt Giraud I don't think it would work nearly as well. Kris Allen went for the trifecta on Matchbox 20's “Bright Lights” singing, playing guitar and piano, a truly versatile performance. He closed his set with a fantastic performance of "Hey Jude", with the other 9 Idols joining him for the end of the song.
The finale of the night was Journey's "Don't Stop Believing", probably the best group effort I've seen. For one reason or another the song just 'fits' this group. There have been a lot of reports on how close the top 10 American Idol group is, but musically they really haven't meshed well as a group, except for this song. It was a fantastic close to the show and a real highlight of the night.
As a complete show the 2009 American Idol's Live Tour isn't as strong as some of its parts. There are some serious shortcomings with how the show was staged. It was too formatted, overly programmed and lacking in some of the staging magic that could have transformed it into a much better show. The addition of a few dancers, some pyrotechnics and a little more stage pizazz would have gone a long way. I also think they could have dropped the twenty minute intermission in favor of a few more duets or sets which colored outside the lines. Also noticeably missing were any fun video clips or anything from the judges. It's a clear opportunity missed not to have anything from any of the judges or even Ryan Seacrest on video saying "This is American Idol".
Despite the production shortcomings the show was very enjoyable. Between Allison Iraheta's energetic set, Adam Lambert's jaw dropping Zeppelin and Kris Allen's pitch perfect performance, there's more than enough here to justifying seeing the show.
For more information about American Idol Live see:
Also be sure to read: Miley Cyrus Live in Concert – Tour Review