Return to James Durbin






A year after his unforgettable Durbin Day concert, Santa Cruz's James Durbin returns home for a more relaxed and original live show at the Beach Boardwalk
Posted: 05/17/2012 01:30:54 AM PDT

So, do you remember where you were on May 14, 2011? n For about 30,000 Santa Cruz County residents, that question is a gimme. That day was, of course, Durbin Day, a singular event in Santa Cruz's history, a sudden thunderclap of national celebrity, live music and hometown pride, all carried on the shoulders of a young man who, six months earlier, was struggling to make ends meet by delivering pizza.

He is James Durbin, the otherworldly talented 23-year-old Santa Cruz singer who exploded into national consciousness a year ago on Fox's highly rated "American Idol." Durbin Day marked the moment that Santa Cruz could celebrate the rise of its hometown boy face to face. On Saturday, a year removed from the frenzy of the original event, Durbin returns to Santa Cruz again to perform live and for free on the stage at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The event is the kick-off to the Boardwalk's summer entertainment season.

Those who saw last year's show may see on Saturday little difference in the look and vibe of the concert. But the differences between last year and this year are fundamental. From Durbin's point of view, last year he was still part of the "Idol" stable, and was under the thumb of the show's producers, which meant he could perform only two songs. Now, seasoned by a year's experience as a touring and recording artist, Durbin has been emancipated.

"The show is now up to us," he said recently during a visit to his hometown to celebrate his son Hunter's third birthday. "We can sing whatever we want. Play however loud we want, as long as we want . All we have to be worried about is making sure we make our next plane to Columbus after the show."

Even more stark was another huge difference -- timing. The Beach Boardwalk knows all about putting on big events. It's been doing it for most of its 105-year history. But it almost always has months to plan and organize those events. Last year, however, no one knew for sure that the Durbin Day show was going to happen until the day before. Earlier that week, the show was presumed to be a go, then it was cancelled, then revived.

"It was an absolute rollercoaster," said the Boardwalk's Kris Reyes. "Most of the events we do, we have up to a year in advance. Time is on our side. This time we really had to fly by the seat of our pants."


When Durbin made the final four at "Idol," the Beach Boardwalk, the Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council and the City of Santa Cruz began making plans for a Durbin show. It's a long "Idol" tradition that the top three finalists get to perform live in their respective hometowns. But then something unexpected happened -- Durbin was voted off the show.

"We were all going 100 miles an hour," said Reyes, "and we were 100 percent confident that this was going to happen, and when he was voted off, it was a punch in the gut."

Reyes was standing by the desk of Boardwalk publicist Brigid Fuller watching the East Coast live feed of the show on the Internet when it was announced that Durbin didn't make the top three. "Brigid immediately called the producers of Idol' right there and asked, Can he come anyway?' And by the next day, there was a conference call about how to do that. When we asked the producers later why they let him come, even though he wasn't in the top three, they said, Well, nobody had ever asked before.'"

For Durbin, that week -- and especially that day -- was particularly emotional. Before the concert, he took part in several community events, including a rally at the Louden Nelson Center with about 300 people from local children's theater groups.

"I had no idea of what was going to happen," said Durbin of the moment when he and his wife Heidi and son Hunter began to make their way from Louden Nelson to the Boardwalk. "I really thought that all the people who would be there on the beach were the same people who were at Louden Nelson."

He turned the corner at Beach Street toward the Boardwalk and was faced with a flabbergasting sight. "I could not believe it," he said.

Since that day, Durbin has toured around the country with his fellow 10th-season "Idol" performers and has recorded his first album "Memories of a Beautiful Disaster." He has also put together his own band. During the 2011 Durbin Day show, he was backed by Santa Cruz's White Album Ensemble who played a primary role in Durbin's development as a performer long before "American Idol." The WAE's keyboardist Dale Ockerman also ran Musicscool, which made Durbin a scholarship student when he was still a teenager. This time, however, he'll be playing with his band, which features guitarist Dylan Rose, a Santa Cruzan who first worked with Durbin while teaching guitar at Musicscool.

He also returned to "American Idol," this time as a guest performer, an experience that he called a bit surreal. "We were down in L.A. for about a week rehearsing for Idol' and then that big day came and I went back to the CBS studio and walked through those old familiar big elephant doors in the studio, seeing all these people I had spent so much time with, the producers, the stagehands. And it was really cool, because everyone was happy to see me."

The second Durbin Day on Saturday represents yet another return to the scene of the crime for Durbin. He said that the magic of the original show will never be exactly duplicated, but that this time, he'll feel more relaxed and more focused on delivering a memorable concert.

"Regardless of how many people are there, it's just going to be so much fun for me," he said. "Going back to your hometown, there's just nothing like it. I'm probably not going to talk as much. But I really did love just being able to stand there and not being able to talk over the screaming and everything. That was so cool. I would love a bit of that again."