The 11th season of “American Idol” may not have produced as colorful a group of characters as in previous years, but the top 10 certainly proved their worth vocally Thursday night at the Times Union Center.
This year’s winner, Phillip Phillips, and the other nine consistently impressed throughout a show spanning two sets, filled with all the expected performances from the TV show as well as a few surprises here and there. Though attendance seemed a bit lower than in previous years, the audience still filled a healthy portion of the arena, and enthusiastically egged the performers on.
Phillips of course got the loudest cheers, and performed the longest, carrying five songs to climax the evening’s second act. Bursting onstage with an acoustic guitar, Phillips proceeded to tear through a beefy, hard-rocking version of “Superstition” that shed new light on the Stevie Wonder classic. Usher’s “Nice and Slow” followed, giving Phillips a chance to shine on guitar on a slower, more contemplative number.
His set only got better from there on out — his version of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” stuck close to the original but did it well, with sixth-place finisher Elise Testone taking a cameo towards the end of the song. Damien Rice’s “Volcano” was another interesting choice, showing a different side of Phillips’ vocal acumen. An original number, “Home,” closed out his set, recalling Jack Johnson in parts.
This year the sets seemed better organized than in past years — instead of slavishly following the order that the Idols finished on the show, they mixed things up, albeit in small ways. There were also more collaborative numbers, which were some of the evening’s most enjoyable. A duet between fourth-place Hollie Cavanagh and fifth-place Skylar Laine on Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It” stood out, the two vocalists providing a nice complement to each other.
The bottom three finishers each got one song on their own, with the number of solo showcases gradually increasing as the show moved up the ranks, so to speak. Eighth-place finisher DeAndre Brackensick got the first chance to shine, admirably taking on Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” and impressing on the falsettos. Erika Van Pelt, who finished 10th, took on Pink’s “Glitter in the Air,” offering more vocal personality than Brackensick. And ninth-place Heejun Han showed his range on John Legend’s “Green Light,” crooning, belting and rapping with ease.
The first act closed with this season’s resident rockers. Testone showed her powerful range and projection on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” and Adele’s “Rumour Has It” (although she missed a bit of the anger of Adele’s original).
Colton Dixon (seventh place) turned in fine versions of Switchfoot’s “Meant to Live” and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Unfortunately, what was undeniably his showcase, an original song from his upcoming album entitled “Never Gone,” was almost derailed by incompetent, out-of-tune guitar playing — and there’s really no excuse for that at this level. Dixon pushed on, though, delivering a fine performance and proving his worth on a big-league level.
Aside from Phillips, the second set was dominated by third-place finisher Joshua Ledet and runner-up Jessica Sanchez. Sanchez opened up, tackling Beyonce (“Best Thing I Never Had”) and Prince (“How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”). But she really tore it up on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” absolutely nailing each chorus with her fiery delivery.
Ledet brought a soul edge missing from the other Idols’ performances — his take on Bruno Mars’ “Runaway Baby” soared. He then took on James Brown with “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” sinking his teeth into the late great soul master’s vocal acrobatics with gusto. A duet between Ledet and Sanchez, on “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” was the icing on the cake.
Sandwiched between were Laine and Cavanagh. Laine’s country attitude shone through especially well on Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder & Lead,” her raw performance oozing passion. Likewise, Cavanagh rendered a heartfelt performance on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” and sung Demi Lovato’s Coldplay sound-alike “Give Your Heart a Break” better than Lovato.