Back to American Idol

Review: American Idol Live! strips down, lets singers shine at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall

Jay Cridlin, Pop Music/Culture Critic
Wednesday, July 8, 2015 12:31am

Imagine seeing Kelly Clarkson in concert without hearing Since U Been Gone, or Chris Daughtry without hearing It’s Not Over, or Phillip Phillips without hearing Home.

That, in a nutshell, is the blank slate of American Idol Live!, the annual roadshow that unites American Idol's most recent finalists with their adoring, voting public, with only their voices in tow.

Clarkson, Daughtry and Phillips were all here at some point, crooning pop covers across America en route to shedding their Idol personalities. All anyone knew from TV was that they could sing. Where they’d go next was still a mystery.

Fourteen seasons in, it’s still kind of a mystery. But Tuesday’s American Idol Live! tour kickoff at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater offered a clearer picture than ever, with a more intimate format that’s scaled down from years past, yet also more satisfying.

For the first time, five finalists – Season 14 winner Nick Fradiani and finalists Clark Beckham, Jax, Rayvon Owen and Tyanna Jones – performed several solo songs backed by a full band, and got a few minutes apiece to share their life stories with the crowd. Given Idol's perennially shrinking ratings, this seems a canny and necessary move if the show hopes to keep grooming its alumni into stars.
Take Beckham, this year’s runner-up. The soulful, soft-spoken Nashville native handled lead vocals on four full numbers, earning ovations for his renditions of Ray Charles’ Georgia On My Mind and Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason, and sang backup on many others. He also showed off smooth piano chops and a mean lead guitar; performed the bubbly pop original I Won’t Give Away; and charmed with stories about his days playing weddings and churches. Would he have gotten such robust stage time on Idol tours past? Probably not.

The new format is a godsend to a singer like Jones, a 16-year-old Jacksonville high schooler who’s never been part of a tour this huge. Her big voice and million-watt smile filled the room, but it’s not hard to imagine how much more polished and assured she’ll sound after 37 shows around America.

Ironically, the one singer who might not benefit from all this extra exposure is Fradiani, who’s already a pretty finished product. He’s a music-biz veteran at 29 – only Taylor Hicks won Idol at an older age – and it shows in his ease behind the mic. While his more rigorous promo schedule kept him from joining rehearsals in Clearwater until Sunday, his re-arranged take on Blackstreet’s No Diggity – a song, he said, he begged to perform on Idol – sounded like he’s been honing it for years (which he no doubt has). So did an original tune, the rousing, folksy Coming Your Way; and his Idol hit Beautiful Life (co-penned by Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba, with whom Fradiani said he’s already writing again). No mystery here; Fradiani seems clear on where he’s going.

The spotlight shifted song by song, singer by singer, for much of the night (most of Fradiani’s songs were bunched toward the end), with each Idol connecting with the audience in different ways.

Pop-punkish rocker Jax, for example, was a bundle of nerves during her story segment, choking up while talking about her father, a first responder on 9/11. But when she performed, no one worked harder to win the crowd over. There were moments when she sang into the crowd as if to an audience of one, pounding fists with first-row fans and snapping selfies with their phones. When a young girl came toward the stage during Paramore’s Brick By Boring Brick, she waved off house security and pulled her up to dance along.

As always with Idol, the cheesiest moments were the big, huggy group sing-alongs, from the Idols skipping onstage to Lenny Kravitz’s Are You Gonna Go My Way? with goofy mall-pop energy; to Beckham, Jax, Owen and Jones grooving generically through Jonny Lang’s tepid Lie to Me.

But even on some ensemble numbers, the tour’s stripped-back format served them well. The effortlessly charming Owen led Jones and Beckham (on piano) through a stark, chillingly harmonized rendition of Sia’s Chandelier; and later burned through one of the evening’s most dynamic numbers, a mash-up of Katy Perry’s Wide Awake and Frank Ocean’s Thinkin Bout You, with his fellow Idols singing backup and the stage lit up in dazzling blue and violet.

Performances like that proved the new format works. That’s when you could see each singer aching for a career beyond the fleeting fame of TV, much like Clarkson, Daughtry or Phillips. That’s when it becomes easier to ignore the giant blue halo projected on the curtain behind them, the one that won’t be there the next time they come to town.

The one that says American Idol.

-- Jay Cridlin