Okay, I admit it. For years, American Idol has been my go-to scapegoat for everything that's wrong with American culture. As real reality becomes more scary and out-of-control, as my rant usually goes, we the people start lapping up the alternative, faux-"reality" of TV competition shows. It's the bread and circuses of the electronic age, with which the corporate powers that increasing run the country mean to keep us too enthralled and distracted to notice as they run riot overseas waging war-for-profit, while eroding our civil liberties here at home, scamming us out of our life savings, and shipping our jobs offshore.
Well, come to think of it, it's all true. But that hasn't stopped me from getting as hooked as anyone on the meteoric rise of local boy James Durbin on this season of Idol. I was first alerted to the brewing Durbin story by Wallace Baine, who wrote this excellent Sentinel piece on James a few weeks ago. He and I and Bruce Bratton met for coffee one morning back in February, to plan a discussion we were co-hosting at the Nickelodeon, and all Wallace could talk about was this local kid with the big voice who was knocking 'em dead in the early rounds of Idol auditions.
A youthful loner, troubled by both Tourette's (a physical, not verbal variety), and Asperger's syndromes, James found an expressive outlet in music, via Kids on Broadway and All About Theatre, starring in local productions of Beauty and the Beast and Singin' In the Rain. A fortuitous meeting with Dale Ockerman of the White Album Ensemble introduced James to rock 'n' roll, and, mama, could that boy ever boogie-woogie. And yet, Wallace pointed out, as a frequent guest singer at WAE gigs, it was James' rendition of the aching ballad, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," that brought the house spontaneously to its feet, cheering, every time.
(James performs with the White Album Ensemble, January, 2009.)
So Art Boy and I decided to check it out. We'd just watch one episode and see what all the fuss was about. It turned out to be the Las Vegas episode, where some 20 semi-finalists performed Beatle songs under the big top at Cirque de Soleil's "Love" production. So our first glimpse of James was him singing a duet with Stefano on "Get Back," perfectly fine but not earth-shaking. We thought we should at least hear him sing solo, so we tuned in next week, and have been watching ever since.
James is establishing himself as the show's top rockster. When other contestants croon ballads, he sings Judas Priest. On Motown night, he opted for Stevie Wonder's gritty, relentlessly driving "Living in the City." When he chose an uptempo, late-model Bon Jovi number on the night they had to pick a song released the year they were born (in James' case, 1989), judge Steven Tyler playfully cautioned him "don't get too poppy!"
So it was a big shock to everyone on the night that each contestant had to sing a song by his or her personal musical hero, and James chose ... Paul McCartney? James, the rocker, the man who had the nerve to audition with the Aerosmith epic, "Dream On," in front of Steven Tyler, and his hero is Paul McCartney?
Oh, yeah. Because he delivered a performance of the slowly building, cumulatively powerful "Maybe I'm Amazed" that was truly cause for amazement. He sang it like he got it, caressed every note, found the source of the song's pulsing power, yet finessed that sweet finish like a pro. In a word, yowza. He did Sir Paul proud, all right, but at the same time made the song radically, indisputably James. Before, I was just curious. Now I'm a fan. Here it is, if you missed it.
Last week was Elton John night. With such an incredible catalogue to choose from, I was hoping for something massive from James, maybe "Burn Down the Mission," or maybe the propulsive "Empty Sky" (go find it on iTunes right this minute!) from John's first British album (bootlegged in this country after his self-titled US debut album). In a way, James opted for something much simpler, the straight-ahead rocker, "Saturday Night's All Right For Fighting." But what a performance! He started out up in the bleachers behind the stage, marched down the stairs, prowled all the way around the apron behind the judges' table greeting the fans, circled back up onstage, leaped on top of the bright red piano, and off again just before it burst into flames, and wound up on his knees, limbo-ed all the way backwards. Singing all the way.
Okay, any idiot can light a piano on fire and prance around onstage like Aldous Snow. It would all be so much empty posturing if that boy didn't have the pipes to back it up, but, boy, does he ever. James can carry off all the schtick without ever missing a note, a beat, or a wail of pure adrenalin. He's the real deal.
They're down to the final nine contestants on Idol now. It broke my heart last week to see may second favorite get booted off, Naimi Adedapo. (Shut up! I loved her reggae version of "I'm Still Standing," which is practically a reggae song already if you listen to the beat.) She has a great look, and if her song choices weren't always great, she delivered them with a lot of punch and savvy. I'll miss her. Her song last week was way better than Paul McDonald's undernourished, attempted "Rocket Man." Paul seems like a nice, affable guy, and America loves his goofy little dance steps, but he is so NOT a rocket man. If James had sung "Rocket Man," the whole studio would have gone into orbit.
It's starting to look like James' most serious competition will come from Pia Toscano. I like her, but basically what she does every week is stand in the middle of the stage in an evening gown and unleash that gigantic diva voice of hers. Seems like she'll have to do more to compete with James' versatility and showmanship. But I don't even really care about the competition. I'll be tuning back in every week just to see what James does next. (Hey, I'm still holding out for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps.")