As I mentioned recently (with unaccustomed brevity), my nephew Josh and I went to the American Idols tour when it came to town. Getting there was, as they say, half the fun because the same evening saw some sort of Caribbean or reggae festival which centered in one of the very parking lots where one typically parks to attend events in the venue where the Idols had come to be – well – idolized. You may feel that this is city planning at its best, but it is but a small rivulet in the roaring river that makes up this nearby city’s lemming-like hurtle toward The End. Another telling signpost on the city’s highway to nowhere is that the venue, once built at great expense and, with a modicum of that civic pride that existed at the time, was yclept the War Memorial (although I imagine – or hope – it was those who fought in those wars and not the wars themselves which were being memorialized) has been renamed after an insurance company, presumably to memorialize those bankrupted by high medical insurance premiums.
The location of the festival was not entirely insane, because the parking lot in which it was being held stands pretty much athwart the downtown end of what used to be the vibrant commercial main drag of a cohesive community generally referred to collectively as Vanessa Avenue because of the street on which it centered. This area was also known as the ghetto, once that term had come into vogue for black-majority city neighborhoods. I had, in my childhood, occasional cause to visit the lower end of Vanessa Avenue (if the downtown end can be termed ‘upper’) because that is where my Aunt Lolly and her unmarried daughter Charlotte lived. Aunt Lolly was from an Irish Catholic Reedville family which still lives here in the area (Joe Gargan is currently landlord to my nephew Seamus, who is Josh’s brother). The Gargans all have a very characteristic look, which somewhat resembles the drawings of characters in illustrations for the old Lois Lenski children’s books. They have a coloring that runs to a brickish red in the cheeks – almost as if it were painted on, and in general a characteristic appearance that makes it easy to pick them out in a crowd. Unfortunately, this appearance which, in the men, tends to look like they might be in a painting of European peasants, translates in the women into monumental ugliness. My Uncle Jack, Lolly’s husband, had been an alcoholic who, like Dad and his sister Aunt Agnes, the other two alcoholic members of the ten siblings, had ended up spending time in the mental hospital. We Shaughnessys do not do things by halves. In Jack’s case, when he was home (or on a furlough – I never clearly understood which) after this episode in the 1940’s , he disappeared and was never seen again. He is the only one of Dad’s siblings of whom I have no memory at all, although they tell me he did visit me as an infant (when I was the infant, not he).
Jeez – How did I get there? I was speaking of Vanessa Avenue. I assume that when Uncle Jack and Aunt Lolly moved there, it was one of those middle class Irish neighborhoods with houses that looked pretty substantial and somewhat like the area in which Archie Bunker dwelt. But over the years a black population had moved into the area, leaving my semi-reclusive Aunt Lolly and Charlotte as two of the few, if not the only, white residents on Vanessa. I was so young when Dad would take us for the annual Christmas duty calls on all the relatives, that I have no recollection at all of the neighborhood’s residents, but I do recall that like all cityscapes it seemed to my open-air, farm-raised eyes to be kind of towering, close-built, dank and grey. In actuality it was a pleasant area (for a city) of houses with small front lawns, fair-sized backyards and solidly-built houses from the early 1900s. I had no idea that Vanessa Avenue was such a cohesive and pleasant community until just recently when I read a feature article in the Sunday paper about the latest of the Vanessa Avenue reunions. It turns out that families from the old Vanessa Street neighborhood keep in touch and have happy memories of the old Vanessa Avenue.
For Vanessa Avenue is no more. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the City That Has No Clue looked about its neighborhoods and decided that black equalled a need for urban renewal, and it replaced the Avenue with a park and a series of dreary public housing units. I remember attempting to find Vanessa Avenue on a visit back home when I lived in SF and finding to my astonishment that it had vanished into a sort of curving street with a different name, and that none of the houses remained. As generally happens when a poor but thriving community of individually owned properties is torn asunder and replaced with a bunch of single-ownership rentals, the neighborhood loyalties were kind of replaced with any remaining unity based on feelings of victimization, or by racial solidarity of the kind which sees no flaws among its own and no virtues among others.
So it was upon this new winding way that Josh and I were marooned in traffic for half an hour on the way to see Adam and the Idols. One characteristic of these urban attempts to create faux winding country lanes in urban landscapes is the complete impossibility of getting from one end to the other when one of the not-so-sylvan byways becomes the foremost route to anywhere popular, such as is Insurance Arena. Especially when Reggaefest is in full cry along its route. However, we reached our destination in timely fashion (I had been wise enough to foresee that there might be delays in getting to anything located in the downtown part of the city, although I certainly did not expect that the drive would become a mini-Caribbean cruise without the water. Or the luxurious suites. Or the service.)
The crowd that assembled to worship the Idols was in festive mood, replete with signs touting the idol of choice, and (I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised), overwhelmingly white. There were more really young children whose age had yet to reach double digits, and also more people who surely remember when Elvis was young, than I expected. It was in no way the completely teen-age crowd I had expected. We filled most of Insurance Arena, although several sections of the highest tier of seating were either sparsely filled or empty. The guards/ushers were jovial and pleasant and everyone came ready to be pleased. One guard, chatting with an early-teen pair of girls in front of us, looked over at a lady in her late fifties or sixties next to them and joked, “But you and me are gonna have trouble if I catch you screaming.” Josh and I had hundred dollar seats (sixty-three dollars originally, but resold to us at the higher figure) in the fourth row of the ‘pit’ which turned out to be a small seating area facing sideways from the main stage toward a narrow extension of it that jutted out into the middle of the crowd, forming a section shaped like – yes – an armpit. Any time a performer strayed to the portion of the stage to the side of us or in front of us, we were about 15 feet away from him or her. The sound in our area (or maybe throughout, who knows?) was execrable, so that the content of any speaking, as well as lyrics to the songs, had to be guessed at or put together from the word or two that one could decipher. Several giant jumbo screens were mounted above and to each side of the stage so we could see on TV what was happening right in front of us. I guess this was to benefit the type of people who go on dates but spend the entire evening texting and phoning others. People are increasingly fearful of reality or in-the-flesh experiences.
Prior to the performance various Idol-related clips were shown: David Cook performing, Carrie Underwood performing. Periodically the current tour performers were shown in reverse order of the highest level to which they had survived – from Michael Sarver at ten to Kris Allen at one. Each time Adam was shown, a roar went up. And it wasn’t just me roaring. Indeed, throughout the show, any mention of Adam gave rise to a big shout from the crowd.
The show began with two songs by Michael Sarver as well as a few remarks which I was not able to discern. He is a genial fellow, but he had the unhappy task of getting the crowd warmed up, a crowd that had come, as far as I could judge, primarily to see one of the top six – notably Adam. The sound was too screwed up for me to judge – even vaguely – his or anyone else’s musicianship in any detail. Most likely all sang well and hit the notes and so on. It was possible to tell when they did any color notes or variation on melodies, but not to know how this would have sounded if one were listening to a recording. Like all the men, except Adam – and to some extent, Anoop – Michael was dressed any-old-way – in his case mostly denim. I saw no star quality in Michael, but a workmanlike performance from a likeable guy.
My first surprise of three during the evening involved the next performer – Megan. I forget her last name – something with ‘cork’ in it, I think. On the television show she had been a little gawky in her movements, but tremendously feisty. So it was a real surprise to find her stage presence to be sort of – not scared, exactly, but slightly unsure. I later noticed that unlike most of the others in the group numbers, she did not seem often to connect with her fellow performers – or even to try to do so. A couple of times she glanced toward the backup singers or offstage as if awaiting a rescue. Her singing was fine – although I had the same problem as I did with Michael as to making out words. I liked her second song – it seems in memory to have something to do with ‘letting your hair down’ or something. It was upbeat and fun. She was far lovelier than I realized from television. Very tall, thin as a rail, but shapely, with a gorgeous face. She was sexily dressed in a very short tight bright pink dress. She also was somewhat suggestive in her behavior (as were many of the performers – Michael had stroked his thigh suggestively, and so forth). The crowd had come to enjoy, but neither of the first two performers really united them in a shared experience. I say Megan was a surprise, and she was: I expected in-your-face and a touch of brass, but I got tentative.
My second surprise was Scott, who appeared next. He either had a better sense of the sound system or simply had a voice that was more suited to it. To accommodate his blindness, they arranged that he rise from beneath the stage already seated at the piano. He was terrific. With Scott, you could feel the crowd finally cohere, and get into the show. Between songs, he did a little chat – making jokes about his blindness – how people would wave to him across the room and his total inability to see them, and of course about the high-five contretemps involving Ryan Seacrest on the TV show that became a viral video hit. I can imagine Scott making a career as a local performer in smaller settings. He has the ability to connect that I did not see in the two prior performers. He was better on stage than on the show I thought, in which latter case I found him completely ordinary. Later, during the group performances, I was impressed by how slickly the choreography allowed Scott to be led by one of the others without making that fact stand out. There would be a balancing pair opposite him doing the same sort of close-together moves, or some other palliating factors. I think that if it weren’t for Scott’s remarks on his blindness, a newbie could have left the show never realizing he was blind.
Liz Rounds followed Scott, and she too was easier to hear. She was beautifully dressed with lots of rhinestone – including a sparkly pair of heels and a wide rhinestone belt which, were it but real diamonds would have caused Queen Elizabeth t blink and draw in her breath sharply. She gave a solid performance, but again I saw her more as a support singer than a star. She certainly has a voice; that was obvious.
After Liz, we saw Anoop Desai. There was a burst of applause for him – he definitely has his fans. He sang three ballads – he knows his strength. I had noticed this before without realizing it consciously, but when it happened again on stage I realized it was a habit: whenever Anoop is about to start moving forward after singing in a stationary position, he dips his upper body backwards slightly and throws one hand behind his back, so there is a kind of lilting bob in his first step while his legs slightly precede his body. When I was kidding with an Indian co-worker that I like a lot at Smallville Solutions – this guy shared a surname with Anoop - I referred to this as the ‘Anoop sneak’. It looks a bit like a kid starting a subtle move to snatch another cookie before Mom puts them away. Anoop sang simply and well. His forte is not working the stage or the audience, but to simply stand and sing ballads skillfully. I enjoyed him; as to his future, it could go either way. I would say recording might be a greater strength than performing. He was in no way disappointing – you would once have seen the same performing style from Dean Martin and others from his era, but now the mode is to move around and knock ‘em out, or so one gathers from watching the TV Idol shows.
Matt Giraud followed Anoop and he was terrific. Matt has the kind of finely modelled facial features that do not photographed well, and he is far better-looking in person than on TV. This guy loves the audience. Of all the ten, he seemed most to connect with individuals in the audience. He appeared to actually see the various signs held up for him, or the people who made some gesture of connection. (Some tweeners seated close to the stage ahead of me had signs for several performers, which they switched as the various singers performed; cynics already at such a young age.) Matt sang beautifully; I can see him becoming one of those lasting performers with a fanatic following like Jimmy Buffett. I’d gladly go to see him again, especially in a smaller venue, where I bet he would hold a near lovefest with the crowd. He is bluesy at his best, and a fine pianist. After his solo songs, he and Scott duetted while using two pianos; my impression is that Matt is a very generous performer, and the duet made them both sound even better, I thought. Another duet between Liz and Megan was Megan’s best performance. After a few more combinations of the first six performers an intermission was granted to my vast relief, because I had to pee like crazy and didn’t want to leave while people were performing, but I was also reluctant to wet my pants.
After the interval, the first performer was Allison Irraheta. This girl is a star in the making. I cannot imagine her failing to make it big. She has a huge voice – I might have been able to hear her without a mic. The audience was at her feet and she worked the stage like a pro. She channeled Janis in Cry, Baby, a song that Simon had inexplicably derided as a poor choice during the competition. Words fail me in describing how good this kid is already, with so many years to improve still before her. I pray that she can be Janis without the pain. On the way home Josh asked me, “Did she seem drunk to you?” I hadn’t noticed anything amiss, and I pray she is not on that road. During the course of the Idol competition I always come to feel I know these people, and feel like I am on a first name basis with them (which is lucky because I rarely remember their last names). I have a personal feeling about ex-contestants which I do not have for other performers, however much I may like them – as if these kids were from my high school or something similar. Allison sang several songs – all great – and at one point mentioned Adam (roar!). She was all smiles and a crowd-pleaser.
Poor Danny Gokey. A remarkably fine singer – for the first time I realized that if I close my eyes, he sounds like a black singer. I say “poor” because the crowd was well aware that Adam was next. Danny was a good singer, and had none of the awkwardness in his movements that characterized his TV appearances. I completely expected him to win the Idol competition and I think he has the voice to have done it. I wasn’t generally aware of how much his one-too-many homages to his recently dead wife (“She would have wanted me to…”) had put people off, though I was aware there was some feeling of ‘all about me’ in regard to him. I watched on YouTube several interviews with Kris, Allison and Adam, and I noticed that despite many personal references to one another, none of the three ever mentioned Danny except in statements such as “I thought Danny would do” this or that, during the competiton. I don’t think Danny is well-liked by the others. Personally, I don’t see a future for Danny, despite his talent – and despite the fact that there were a number of Danny fans in the audience at the arena. Danny needed a victory on Idol. I'd sayhis best bet would be to team up with his talented best friend Jamal who disappeared during the Hollywood portion of the show (after giving what I thought was a terrific performance – by far his best) and work up a duo act with him. Both are good singers, and the affection between them would add a quality that Danny lacks alone.
And then Adam. Smoke rose from beneath the stage (Every church-goer who voted for Kris knew EXACTLY where that was coming from). Adam appeared back-lit, then lit from below. And he was awesome – he was Adam. He did a Bowie medley at one point which may signal the direction he will take; I hope for a more Freddy Mercury or Jim Morrison path, personally. It was funny – he is a big, well-made guy, so when he did Bowie, who is sort of wispy and androgynous, he came off as almost too masculine for the material. Adam actually doesn’t come off as gay, except when he wants to. He did one song deliberately a bit on the gay side, even his voice changed a little – it was a nice bit of fuck-you without being sissy. The gay thing has nothing to do with why I like him; I truly believe he will be one of the greats. He made the stage seem tiny, he was so dominant. He knows his theatrics, but he transcends the theatrical. He has so much singing skill – such range, different voices, almost. I used to follow some of the web commentary about him, and the only negative comments that irked me (I don’t mind people not liking those whom I like; not everyone is as discerning as me) were those who “couldn’t stand his screeching”. Clearly these are people who have never heard rock – who think David Cook is a rocker. No – Rock and roll, is passion, it is Jim Morrison, it is Mick and Janis, Led Zep, Steppenwolf; it is trembling on the edge of death – theirs or yours. Adam never missed a note in his life – those vocals at the top of his range were spot-on perfectly pitched falsetto. I have nearly all Adam’s performances on my iPod and I use the shuttle feature, so when he happens into the rotation I am not especially in the Adam mood or mode, and I marvel each time at the glory of his voice. I have no quarrel with Adam failing to win Idol; lots of people don’t care for real rock and roll, lots of people prefer boy-band sounds, or crooner, or country or blues styles, all perfectly legitimate preferences. The mode now is for crooners, or for a watered down form of rock with all the anger removed. Every fair, as Shakespeare reminds us, from fair sometime declines. Thus 50s through 70s rock was homogenized, pasteurized and made safe for grandma – although the grandmas I saw at Insurance Arena were reliving the Woodstock days as they were caught in the Adam glow. But in rock, the Carpenters won in the end. I truly believe that Adam might be the man to save real rock and roll. My second coming, as it were. I plan to take a few months off soon and stalk that boy. (“off from what?" you are asking; exactly – Ain’t life great?) Just to make me completely happy, Adam called Allison out to reprise their duet from the waning days of the Idol show. It was better than the first time, if such is possible. I have seen the Promised Land.
Finally, Kris Allen. I had heard tales of people starting to empty the theater in prior Tour appearances (although these reports were on pro-Adam discussion threads, so it could have been spiteful reports of one guy having to go out to pee). That’s as may be, but my third surprise of the night was Kris Allen. He was fantastic. His exuberance and joy in performing were revelatory. He is a performer that draws you in, unlike Adam and Allison who blow you away. I think this tour might assure him a lasting career. I couldn’t stop smiling as he performed. This guy is all about ‘happy’. In person Kris proves that his win was not some freak thing. I would still say that in a judged contest based on star quality, Adam would have won, but I can see where Kris got his votes and he deserved them. It would be hard to go to see Kris sing and to have a bad time. Huge energy, but the over-riding note was joy. A very handsome kid, and a terrific singer – he had me in his hand by the second song, and he won over Josh when his third song was the Killers song, All these Things that I Have Done. Both Josh and I are huge Killers fans (though neither knew the other was until now) and Kris tore it up.
So anyway a good time was had by all. I am glad I went. And I have a gift card for iTunes just waiting for Adam’s first album. I have been thrilled by many songs in the last several decades, but not since the 70’s have I really loved a performer – and I love Adam. I am retired and Adam is performing – it is like Woodstock all over again. Life is good.