Not every “American Idol” finalist realizes it yet, but the post-broadcast tour is an extended audition that’s just as important as the first go-around that landed them in the money on the Fox TV show. This time, however, they are playing to audiences who pay for music, fans looking for stars to invest in down the road. Those who present coherent stage personas that connect with their “Idol” performances — the two Davids, Syesha Mercado, Jason Castro, Carly Smithson and, surprisingly, Chikezie — are helping their careers. Those who see the tour as a chance to reconnect with past televised glory — Kristy Lee Cook, Ramiele Malebay, Michael Johns — are wasting a golden opportunity.
At the fifth show on a 53-concert tour that ends Sept. 13 in Tulsa, Okla., the complaints and praise are not that changed from the commentary provided by the show’s judges: across-the-board consistency works; not understanding the importance of song selection is a career killer. Each performer is given a solo segment; the bottom six come out for two group perfs prior to a commercial-filled 25-minute intermission, and all 10 end the night with Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music.” (The group songs are blandly sung and choreographed.)
This season’s top three did everything right: They exuded personalities that complemented what auds learned about them on television; their three (Mercado), four (Archuleta) or five (Cook) songs had a linear connection that bonded the singers with a style, and they dressed the part, polishing the wardrobe elements just enough to show they take the stage seriously.
Cool and charming, Cook, in white T-shirt, black vest with some sparkles and charcoal jeans laced up the sides, provided two of the night’s most passionate perfs on his covers of the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” He included the single “Time of My Life,” which won “Idol’s” songwriting competition, in his set; fortunately, it was not as cringe-inducing as past winners have been.
Archuleta opted for a set of easy-going pop numbers, working his captivating smiles, aw-shucks demeanor and rich, focused voice. He softens edges in songs and sells them well, whether it be OneRepublic’s “Apologize” or Robbie William’s “Angels.” The most ardent fans in the crowd are clearly Archie-maniacs — while the cheers may be loudest for Cook, the squeals hit the highest decibels for Archuleta. (Median age of this crowd is probably 24, though no one is actually that age; fans are either between 8 and 15 or 39-55 — and most likely female.)
Mercado, a beauty whose outfits played up her shapeliness, went for show stoppers by three hot contempo R&B singers — Rihanna, Alicia Keys and Beyonce — but it’s her affinity for musical theater that found her shining brightest. “Listen,” from “Dreamgirls,” had a few clunkers in the first verse, but it became her coup de grace, a gleaning vehicle for her to display finesse in the early going and power at the song’s conclusion.
Castro, whose perf was greeted with wide-eyed stares and silence by the kids, has found a comfort zone in between Jack Johnson and George Michael that could become Adult Contemporary gold. Chikezie, who added an a cappella song for his parents in the audience, has latched onto midtempo R&B with just enough throwback bits and modern touches — soulful melodies, bass-reinforced beats — to make one believe he could be a contender.
The rest of the lot were far less successful. Kristy Lee Cook, the only “Idol” singer besides the two finalists to have secured a record deal, came out sassy with Carolyn Dawn Johnson’s “Tryin’ to Squeeze the Love Outta You,” and the style suited her well. But to quickly revert to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” suggested that she has yet to settle on an identity as a performer. The patriotism of the song may have saved her from (rightful) elimination on “Idol,” but here it suggests that she has yet to move forward as an artist.
Michael Johns and Brooke White re-created moments from the show, and they have a future leading cover bands at corporate events and nightclubs. Ramiele Malubay, decked out in junior dominatrix wear, was weathered by her third song, her voice too thin to power through anything but soft accompaniment.
Carly Smithson is still a big question mark. There’s no doubt about the power of her voice and ability to sing like Ann Wilson of Heart. That job, though, is taken. Blessed with the right material, Smithson could become something of a pop-hard rock queen, but that role is hard to come by. As well as she sold herself in that role — nonsexual and nonthreatening yet powerful — she will need to develop a non-“Idol” audience more than any of the other performers. With the exception of Daughtry, that has proven to be the biggest challenge for anyone who appears on the show.
New York area performances are July 30 and 31 at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., and Aug. 4 and 5 at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.