It was a rough year for the American Idols franchise. In its 12th year, the show that launched such pop stars as Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson seemed frayed and stale, lost viewers to glitzier talent shows (i.e., “The Voice”) and looked rigged to produce a female winner, after years of triumphing boys-with-guitars including last year’s Phillip Phillips.
But that didn’t stop the eager young contestants from giving the vocal horserace their all. The top 11 finalists, including new Idol champ Candice Glover, were rewarded with a spot on the national Idols tour, which kicked off its 30-city run on Friday at Kent’s ShoWare Center.
Before a friendly, family crowd that filled about three-quarters of the seats available, the event was a fast-paced, over-miked, enthusiastic mélange of solo and group numbers, with a frenetic light show behind.
While the emphasis on recycled pop oldies on Idol broadcasts gets plenty of criticism, the Idol concert was a veritable 2013 hit parade that emphasized recent tunes by the likes of Bruno Mars, Rhianna, Robin Thicke, et al.
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Emphasizing the gender gap, the show began with an ingratiating ensemble number: Glover, country crooner runner-up Kree Harrison and the four other gal finalists as they smiled, strutted and chimed in on Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Soon after the three highest- ranking guys in suave suits (Burnell Taylor, Curtis Finch Jr. and Devin Velez) did a sweet and sharp version of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie.”
All in all, the group numbers ranged from pretty good to so-so to godawful (a messy take on Mars’ ecstatic “Locked Out of Heaven”). When things got tiresome you could enjoy the slick and sparkly attire (lots of smooth costume changes). But the worst issue with anything uptempo was the earsplitting volume of the band, which often seemed intent on drowning out the eager young singers.
But the main concert attraction for many Idol fans is the solo spots Which of the singers have the showmanship to make their small-screen performances shine before a large, live crowd? Which might have an actual career in music?
The winners of that particular contest: first and foremost, Kree Harrison. If she lacked charisma at times on TV, in person Harrison is a natural — her manner relaxed, her warm, rich, lightly husky voice soaring on Patti Griffin’s beautiful “Up to the Mountain,” and on a soulful cover of Alabama Shakes’ “Hold On.” The audience loved her, chanting “Kree, Kree, Kree” in deserving adoration, and her future looks bright.
Velez also won admirers with his pitch-perfect, Spanish/English version of the ballad ”Impossible,” and gave off a much more personable vibe than on TV. Taylor’s somewhat eccentric R & B phrasings on George Michael’s “One Last Try” were actually quite appealing.
Ray of sunshine Janelle Arthur won the perky prize, for decent if unremarkable renditions of country odes (“Where the Blacktop Ends”).
Not coming off as well: the popular but shouty, hard-sell rocker-chick-lite Angie Miller, and the pretty but stiff and uncomfortable-looking Amber Holcomb.
The winner’s solo set was saved for the end. Looking poised and quietly glamorous, Glover was very warmly greeted and proved that the uniqueness of her wide-ranging voice is the real thing.
Though her coronation ballad “I Am Beautiful” is a sappy self-esteem ode, it’s well-sung and clearly meaningful for her younger listeners. And her creatively phrased, melismatic take on The Cure’s “Lovesong” was gorgeous.
But her set raised the ultimate question for Idol champs: what kind of music will she make later, and will it bring her success? If she goes in the jazzy-soul direction of “Lovesong,” I’d say yes. But a tune she introduced from her upcoming album, “In the Middle,” termed “a summer song, a feel-good song about love,” was disappointing — bland and indistinguishable from a lot of breezy, thumpy club tunes.
Still, one wishes Glover the best. For some of us, she (and Harrison) made American Idol worth watching this year.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org