How did James Durbin rock Santa Cruz on Saturday? With a vengeance.
The 48-hour emotional whirlwind that plunged us all into despair when the American Idol voting results were announced Thursday night spun Cruzans into soaring delirium Saturday when James got his homecoming after all—the first contestant in Idol history to be granted a weekend home, even though he finished out of the Final Three. Some 30,000 of us thronged to the Boardwalk bandstand on Saturday to see him perform live (the biggest crowd in the 104-year history of the Boardwalk), all of us eager to be part of the first show of the rest of his life.
Anticipation was in the air online and all morning, including some excellent photos texted to the Sentinel website by Kevin Johnson of James stopping in to get a bite at Zoccoli's downtown, and signing autographs (and a table). The James Show officially kicked off at 2:30 at Louden Nelson Center, where he met with his former mentors and current performers from Kids On Broadway and All About Theater, as well as parents and children diagnosed with Tourette's and Asperger's Syndromes. This would be followed by a motorcade down Center Street, past Depot Park, around the roundabout, and down Beach Street to the Boardwalk.
But while all this was going on, my friend Donna and I opted to go straight to the beach. We parked a few blocks away, walked over the railroad tracks, and joined the crowds hiking in to the Boardwalk. (Along the way we all passed the Starz Bakery table, doing a brisk business with their James Durbin cupcakes—many of which I'm sure will be shellacked or otherwise preserved as a memento of the day.) By 3 p.m., the Boardwalk Esplanade as well as the upper deck overlooking the bandstand were already crammed with people, so we staked out a little patch of sand on the crowded beach to the right of the stage, just down from the Double Shot ride (whose hysterically screaming riders only added to the festive sense of excitement).
The White Album Ensemble was already onstage, tuning up. Except for a giant amp here or there, we had a pretty good view of the side of the stage. All ages were represented in the crowd; lots of teens and tweens, of course, but also entire families (a woman behind us proudly announced she was there with three generations of her family), parents hoisting up little kids on their shoulders, as well as a sizeable contingent of geezers and grannies, all of us bouncing and lip-synching to the WAE's Beatle tunes. James' appeal cuts across all age boundaries, but the most fun to watch were the kids, from girls with all their various hand-made "We (Heart) James" signs to the little boy in the Vine Hill Elementary T-shirt with his long hair gelled up into a big Mohawk , to the young Goth teen with the black-and-white scarf "rat tail" dangling out of his back jeans pocket, James-style. And everybody was in a friendly, celebratory mood.
Toward the end of the WAE's hour-and-a-half set, the crowd started pressing in closer (all we could see was a sea of heads in all directions) with the word that James had hit the beach. It took another 15-20 minutes for the lifeguard truck he rode in on to deliver him past the throngs to the bandstand; sequential screaming from the outskirts of the mob ensued as people got their first glimpse of his blond-streaked hair in the intermittent sunlight as the truck inched by.
And then he was up on the bandstand in real life, no commercial interruption, no tape delays. It's pretty amazing to see someone you've welcomed into your home on TV for 10 weeks suddenly live onstage; I was so glad I hadn't slothed out, stayed home and waited for the You Tube recap. The crowd went nuts, as James personally hugged every single member of the WAE, and waved to the roaring fans.
He thanked everyone for showing up, and for their support, and then the Boardwalk representative who was acting as emcee asked him how he felt about coming home to Santa Cruz. James thought about it for a moment, then walked over to stage left. "Can you hear me?" he shouted to the crowd on that side, who roared in response. "I can't hear you," he challenged them, prompting an even more seismic response. He marched centerstage, repeated the challenge, and got another deafening response, then came to our side, the edge of stage right, shouted the same litany, and had us all screaming like idiots. Then he marched centerstage once more, and raised his arms to us all, provoking a bone-rattling tsunami of rapturous joy.
"That's how I feel," he said. (Can this guy work a crowd, or what?)
Then he sat down on the edge of the stage, front and center, feet dangling over the side, and chatted about Thursday night's elimination round on American Idol. "The reason I was so emotional wasn't because I was off the show," he told us. The reason, he said, was that he'd been so looking forward to the chance to come home and thank "each and every one of you" for our support during his Idol adventure, a reunion he now assumed he wouldn't get. (The feeling was mutual; hands up, everybody else who went to bed in tears Thursday night, not only because we thought James had been robbed on the show, but because we thought we'd all been cheated out of Durbin Day?) He then praised Mayor Ryan Coonerty for his Herculean 11th hour efforts to make sure James got his homecoming after all.
Coonerty himself then came downstage, proclamation in hand. No mean hand at crowd manipulation himself, Coonerty asked the audience if they felt like "Durbin Day" was quite enough. What about "Durbin Week," he suggested, or maybe "Durbin Month?" At last, he handed the proclamation to James, designating "2011 as James Durbin Year!" At this point, Coonerty went on, it was customary to hand over the keys to the city, "But this is Santa Cruz, and we do things differently." Then he presented James with a custom surfboard painted with a portrait of James singing.
Finally, it was time for James to do what he'd come to do: sing. (Although not before he proclaimed to the crowd, "I was born in Santa Cruz. I grew up in Santa Cruz. And I'll forever live in Santa Cruz!") With the WAE as his backup band, he opened with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?'" (a loaded question for this crowd), complete with lilting a capella first verse, and a driving finish to the finale, "You better love me tomorrow!" that makes this song his own. Next up was his signature tune with the WAE, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," delivered with haunting finesse (despite a funky sound system that made it difficult to hear himself).
That was theoretically all we were supposed to get, although of course he came back for one encore, after much shouting from the crowd. ("What are you saying? 'Bang A Gong?' " he asked. "Oh, one more song!") He then launched into a wailing version of "Don't Stop Believin'," which had everyone going nuts. If he had to narrow down his repertoire to one, single theme song, that would probably be it.
The fun thing about seeing James Durbin live is, yes, he really sings that well, moves around the stage like he was born on it, and engages the audience, big time. The next opportunity to see him live will be on the American Idol summer roadshow tour, July 13, at the Shark Tank in San Jose. I encourage fans to show up at that event to support James in his own back yard. After that, hold on to your rat tails; his solo career is just around the corner.
Concert photos by Brad Kava, Watsonville.Patch.com. See the slideshow.
Here are some fabulous photos by Donaven Staab, Boardwalk Staff Photographer, on the BW Facebook page
Here's a great You Tube composite video of James' arrival at the beach and performances.