Two cities, three ‘Gerogias on My Mind’ , and one Glittery Alien.
A little about me: I am in my mid-fifties, a well-educated marketing executive, who has watched American Idol casually over the years, but never really got too involved with the show or interested in any of the contestants. I have lived all over the country, but now live in Mississippi. When I was younger, I was in a couple of rock/new wave/punk bands. I play piano, keyboard and lead guitar. I am also a classically trained vocalist. This year, like many others, I became an Adam fan and decided that I had to see Adam in concert. I got tickets for both the Little Rock and Memphis shows. My husband is not really much of an Idol fan, although he likes Adam and Allison, but he agreed to attend both concerts with me.
First of all, with a few minor differences, the two concerts were almost identical. But the total experience of these two concerts couldn’t have been any more different.
Little Rock ‘ ‘Kris’ Hometown’ : I had pictured this concert with 14, 994 Kris fans and 6 Adam fans, our small group from Mississippi. When we checked into our hotel, I was pleasantly surprised to find the hotel bar and lobby were filled with Idol fans ‘ mostly Adam fans who had traveled from Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and other states to see the show. We had amazing, 2nd row floor seats which I purchased from a broker for only a $20 premium. There were a number of Adam fans seated around us and many, many Kris fans. The crowd was really loud, for everyone. Louder for Adam. And insane for Kris. Seeing Kris in Little Rock, so moved by the crowd, was wonderful and joyful for everyone who was lucky enough to be there. The show was also entertaining but the night was really all about Kris. We ended up having drinks with a bunch of Idol fans ‘ both Adam and Kris fans and had a wonderful evening. The next day, our friends returned to Mississippi, my husband told me that I was really crazy to buy tickets to two concerts, and we headed off to Memphis ‘ just 2 hours away ‘ but a whole different world.
Memphis ‘ ‘Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock & Roll’ : Little Rock is a city that is alive during work days; Memphis is a city of the night. Business gets done in Little Rock, music is business in Memphis. This concert is in the hometown of Elvis and Justin Timberlake, Beale Street where B.B. King and the other great Delta bluesmen created the Memphis Blues, the place where the electric guitar became part of blues and rock music, and the home of Stax Records where Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and so many others recorded. The venue is just down the street from the home of Gibson Guitars and Sun Records. When you play Memphis, you need to bring your A-game.
We arrived at The Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. This hotel is a wonderful, historic hotel famous for having real ducks in the lobby fountain. But today, the lobby isn’t filled with just ducks, it’s packed wall-to-wall with Idol fans. The line for registration takes almost an hour so we have time to meet many other fans. People have come from Kentucky, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, and even farther. A young man, maybe 18 years old, with Lambert emo hair and eyeliner is leaning against a wall, purposefully not making eye contact with anyone. I met his parents in line and discovered they are from the UK, Elvis fans touring Memphis and going to see the Idol concert. Their son loves Adam; I am not surprised.
Our hotel is 4 blocks from the Fedex Forum. We take a slow walk down Beale Street on our way to the arena. Beale Street is lined with blues clubs, BBQ joints, street performers and Idol fans. We notice many younger girls wearing Adam shirts and see a few fans with Adam signs. There are also ‘plain clothes’ Idol fans we guess are Kris fans. The street is teaming with music ‘ blues, rock & roll, hip hop, urban beats. A great blues band is performing at the Coca Cola Pavilion, and a few people are dancing. Every club has pictures of Elvis. A large wall has a mural of Elvis. He is omnipresent. After stopping at a couple of the clubs to listen to some music and have a drink or two, we head to King Creole for a bowl of gumbo and one more margarita. A few minutes after we arrive, a lone blues guitarist sets up on the stage and starts to play. After a couple of songs he starts to sing, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ . There’s a murmur in the restaurant, and we look around. Everyone is talking about American Idol, the whole place is filled with people getting a drink or a quick bite before the concert. The guitarist is really good. The waiter informs the people at the next table that this song isn’t being played because of Idol, it just a blues standard everyone plays. A few more songs and he starts to play ‘Georgia on My Mind’ . It’s a great version. The murmur starts again, the waiter just laughs. We finally head down to the arena.
The Memphis concert: We have spectacular seats, about 45 degrees from the stage, over the floor on the Club level, and lined up with the massive arch of speakers. 6:40 the Carrie Underwood, Daughtry, Cook, Disney, Ford video loop starts. And we get the joy of seeing it repeat 3 times before the concert starts. People from the crowd scream whenever Adam picture shows up. There are a lot of Kris fans, but maybe they just are not screamers. I see a couple a young girls in Kris T-shirts, some in American Idol shirts but most of the fans wearing Idol fav garb are Adam fans. About 20 minutes late the concert finally starts.
The arena: Fedex Forum is a big arena; it’s not quite sold out, my rough guess is 18, 000+ people are there for the show. It was designed for basketball, not concerts, and the seats on the three tiers are very steep. Everyone, except the people on the back of the floor, have great views ‘ even if you stay seated. It takes a lot to get people in this arena on their feet and cheering.
The band and sound mix: The band is really great but way too loud for most of the singers. In a couple of cases, this is a good thing, but generally it is not. And overall the sound may be too loud in some parts of the arena.
The back-up singers: Most of the time the two back-up singers do the same dance step, a bit like two robot zombies. The just don’t seem engaged with the performers or the songs. They’re distracting.
The production: The stage design is really pretty good but some of the content is distracting or worse. The worst is the video for Megan’s ‘Tears Dry on Their Own’ , a cartoonish story created with giant icons including a man and a woman symbol like they used on restroom signs, and a mysterious hopping rabbit.
The first 6 performers: The first four performances are well-meaning but not very engaging. It’s Lil’s ‘hometown’ concert but she really just gets a lukewarm response. Things get a lot better when Anoop takes the stage. His personality really shines and his voice is really quite good. He also does a great job working the floor. And some people in the audience are finally paying attention.
Then Matt takes the stage and delivers the first breakout performance of the night. He is energetic, engages the audience and just fun. His performance of ‘Hard to Handle’ is great, he tears across the piano with a style that would make Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis proud. He then commands the entire area with a piano solo performance of ‘Georgia on My Mind’ ‘ no band, no special effects, just one man and a piano. Matt’s massively talented and I would buy a ticket for a Matt concert any day of the week.
Intermission, Ford commercials start again, I know that more videos of Carrie, Daughtry and Cook. We go into the Club Suite and avoid them. The other people in the suite are all involved in the music business. All anyone can talk about is Matt, and the countdown to Adam. One of our music pro friends express one concern about Adam, he needs to be careful that he doesn’t become a caricature. At first I am offended, but then I realize the danger is real. I hope he has really wise management. But everyone agrees that he really could be a star.
Allison: We love Allison, but the band is so loud that she is just screaming her songs and fighting the band. I desperately want to fix the sound mix. She frantically bounds around the stage and the whole thing just isn’t working. The audience isn’t really engaged during the performance but applauds loudly at the end. We all love Allison!
Danny: He enters to the biggest opening applause so far. He starts off with ‘PYT’ and some people stand up and dance. I particularly notice two women that are really into the song and really dancing. Most people just sit. There are some young girls screaming like crazy for him. ‘Maria Maria’ is OK but the dancing and microphone work are just not very good. He starts his speech, almost identical to Little Rock, the audience isn’t really getting it. He sings ‘My Wish’ . I’ve seen him twice and I’m still confused about what kind of artist he wants to be ‘ Michael Jackson, Santana, Rascal Flats, salsa dancing, rock attire, inspirational speech.
Adam: Finally. The intro starts, the audience goes crazy. From the moment the intro starts, Adam has command of the whole arena. I notice that the two women who were dancing for Danny are now totally into Adam. He comes out with Elvis hair and I swear that his eyebrows and eye makeup were styled to be more Elvis-like. The whole set is even better the second time I see it. During ‘WLL’ they show a big image of Adam on the large video screen on the side of the stage, he looks like all the Elvis pictures in the photos and murals around Memphis. It’s a bit eerie, but oddly fitting. He doesn’t imitate Elvis, it’s just a nice nod to the King. Adam doesn’t do much talking but tonight he says that he’s really liking it here in Memphis. Then he introduces ‘Starlight’ and I am on another planet. I have seen Muse perform ‘Starlight’ live and the Idol band isn’t as good, but Adam’s vocals surpass Matt Bellamy. For me, it is the highlight of the concert. Perhaps, because it’s the 4th straight concert there are some vocal changes in Adam’s set, a pleasant one comes at the end of ‘Mad World’ when he replaces the last high note with a 4-note improvisation that is beautiful. He introduces Allison for ‘Slow Ride’ . The band is not fighting with the vocals for this song. Allison can sing, not scream, and it’s her best performance. That’s the Alison that I love! They have so much fun the whole place is smiling and clapping along. It ends is a huge hug. Then Adam closes his set with the Bowie Medley, most people are on their feet, and just like that he’s gone. But we are all still under his spell. Adam is quite simply one of the best vocalists I have ever heard and not like anyone else. I believe his brother Neil was right when he called him ‘The glittery alien from Planet Fierce’ . Because that is the only plausible explanation for some of the notes he hits.
Kris: Loud applause and cheers. Not quite as loud as for Adam, but maybe more widespread. The two dancing girls are already dancing for Kris. Some people wearing Adam shirts are clapping and cheering for Kris. It’s a really nice welcome from the Memphis fans. Just about everyone sits back down. Kris starts with ‘Heartless’ . The band is really loud. Kris moves on to TTTIHD and tries to get the crowd to join into the chorus, people don’t. This has been a really tough crowd all night and stays that way. Kris continues through the set and the band is just powering him out. When he gets to ‘Hey Jude’ , Kris asks people to turn on their cell phones, a few obey, but mostly it’s just the same glowsticks moving back and forth. A few people sing along, but mostly people just listen.
Clearly, the production strategy was to make Kris’ performance ‘big’ but in the end I just don’t think it worked very well. I think ‘bandzilla’ just buried a lot of the things people loved about Kris. Having seen Kris perform live, I respect his self-awareness; he is really well suited to the Joe King (The Fray) soft rock/alt. rock space.
Don’t Stop Believing/Na Na Na Na: The crowd in back into the final song. Then it’s done. As we’re leaving, I overhear a few people complain that there wasn’t an encore. But most people are happy. And there’s a ton of music one block away on Beale Street.
We head out to get some dinner on Beale Street. Finally we settle on a club with a late kitchen and dueling piano players. We start eating, the music is great. The piano players are both better than Scott or Kris, but not Matt. We start talking about how surprisingly good Matt is, we agree the judges were right to save him and wish that the happy, fun, secure Matt we saw tonight had been on Idol. All the sudden the piano players start singing ‘Georgia on My Mind’ . Third time tonight! What a strange, wonderful world.
Final note: We learned there are some advantages to being #11 on Idol and missing the Top 10 Tour. The folks of the tour were rushed out of Memphis to fly to Tampa. As we were walking back to our hotel, we spotted Alexis Grace cozily chatting with a handsome young man while taking a ride in one of the horsedrawn Cinderella carriages that stroll around downtown Memphis. That sure beats dealing with baggage check-in at the airport!