By Erik Ernst, Special to the Journal Sentinel
The ninth season of “American Idol” was marked by headlines that focused more on the show’s judges and slumping ratings (even though it remained the country’s top-rated program) than its singing talent. That left a lineup of contestants without any early standouts.
As the annual “American Idol Live!” tour of the top 10 contestants arrived at the Marcus Amphitheater Friday night, the effect was clear. Lower interest resulted in plenty of open seats. Buy-one-get-one-free deals filled only about three-quarters of the lower, covered seating, with tweens, their parents and other reality TV fans decked out in homemade T-shirts and carrying brightly colored signs.
The pattern of the nearly three-hour concert was familiar, right down to the Ford advertisements for a chance to go backstage by sending a winning text message. Contestants chose covers to perform, with full-length songs replacing the shortened, made-for-TV hits. The few group performances were just as cheesy as they are on “Idol.”
Nerves were evident from the outset – especially from the early eliminated contestants – on this second date of a three-month tour. Didi Benami’s “Lay It on Me” by the Rescues, Andrew Garcia’s acoustic take on Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” and the recent high-school graduate Katie Stevens’ cover of Demi Lovato’s “Here We Go Again” would have deserved a verdict of “a bit pitchy, dawg” from “Idol” judge Randy Jackson.
Siobhan Magnus offered a dramatic, gothic “Fade to Black,” and Tim Urban’s “Viva la Vida” and his boyish smile drew a few squeals from the crowd. But it was 17-year-old Aaron Kelly, with his set of country hits, who was the first “Idol” who seemed comfortable onstage.
The show’s second half affirmed these contestants’ place closer to the big prize. Michael “Big Mike” Lynche’s voice carried a sweet falsetto in Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” Casey James’ vocals were spot-on, but it was his fast and loose slide guitar on a bluesy “It’s all Over Now” that really shone.
It was runner-up Crystal Bowersox and winner Lee DeWyze who finally got the entire crowd on its feet. Guitar in hand, the dreadlocked Bowersox was conversational as her effortless, soulful voice carried “Piece of My Heart” and 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up.”
DeWyze shrugged off a broken guitar string during a reggae-tinged “Beautiful Day.” Thanking the crowd, he marched around the stage for an enthusiastic cover of the Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody.”