By BEN RATLIFF
WANTAGH, N.Y. — Early in Wednesday’s concert, before sunset, the beach ball made its journey forward. It was tagged with Sharpies: fan messages to the performers, funny invitations to keep it aloft. It was a gift, a little instrument of liberation in a hot and heavily mediated scene.
On it bounced through the orchestra seats at the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, sneaking up on each pocket of stony faced parents and jumpy preteens. Finally it reached the stage, where it rolled up to the black platform boots of Siobhan Magnus, the sixth-place finalist during the past season of “American Idol.” She was just heading into her version of No Doubt’s “Spiderwebs,” and commenting on how she loves the ocean air, being from Cape Cod. Then she noticed the ball.
“Uh-oh!” she said. She seemed unsure of what to do.
That response isn’t totally un-Siobhanlike; she’s kind of a space shot. You can imagine her saying “uh-oh” and laughing nervously at many unthreatening things: puppies, butterflies. But that moment said something of the concert’s critical lack of joy. It was not a creative space.
During the American Idols Live! tour, all the dead stagecraft of the TV show gets stretched to three hours, with songs mostly repeated from the season repertory and presented in largely the same order each night. (Earlier this week, at least seven scheduled tour stops were canceled.) It would be nice if the pop persona each finalist forged through the season could now be set loose — if Ms. Magnus could puncture that ball, or sing a song to it; if Lee DeWyze could stylize his dudely nervousness; if Crystal Bowersox could acoustically subvert something or other.
But that’s a ridiculous hope. This is contractual duty: dozens of one-nighters across North America, starting a month after the end of the season. (Just enough time, in fact, for Ms. Bowersox to get the gap in her teeth fixed.) Of the 10 performers, only one — to use Paula Abdul’s unforgettable Season 8 phrase — dared to dance in the path of greatness.
It wasn’t Ms. Bowersox, who sang well enough through her throaty numbers — Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window” and Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” — but created little stir. It wasn’t Casey James, who proved up and down (particularly on the Black Keys’ “I Got Mine”) that he could play the electric guitar close to the style of Stevie Ray Vaughan, but still essentially skated through. It wasn’t Michael Lynche, the only R&B singer of the group, genial and boring even as he plugged the sponsors with style. (“Tonight we got some special friends in the house,” he said, sitting on a stool, pulling his hat brim down low. “The Cheesecake Factory is with us. Come on, give it up.”)
And it wasn’t Mr. DeWyze, this season’s winner. When he arrived onstage, big-eyed and bashful, the largely passive audience fully awoke. He was theirs. How would he keep them?
“If it wasn’t for you,” he said, “I wouldn’t be here.”
We hold this truth to be self-evident. He started with U2’s “Beautiful Day,” sluggishly rearranged with acoustic guitar so that it resembled “Come to My Window.” To the middle of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” he smuggled one line from another song about the fear of leaving the family and entering more dangerous atmospheres: Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine.” (There was a great point in there, and one perfect for Mr. DeWyze, but it got lost.) Through Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in a more confident performance than he gave on the show, he started to sell his emotion harder; by the time he sang Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose’s “Treat Her Like a Lady,” he was yelling tiresomely.
The happy surprise was Katie Stevens, the 17-year-old eighth-placer. The ambition she displayed on the show, since she was eliminated in March, has become something close to aggression. In front of the night’s best back-screen graphics — Lichtensteinish comic-strip dots and speech bubbles for lyrics — she sang Demi Lovato’s “Here We Go Again,” about desperate love, and Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter,” about desperate vindication.
She has learned how to move. She wore studded fingerless gloves. She sassed the audience until it talked back. (“How we DOING?” “That’s more LIKE IT!”) She held herself up as an example. “If you have a dream,” she told the crowd, “don’t be afraid to go after it, no matter the obstacles.”
That’s the stuff. Somebody had to say it. She’s not too cool for the job.