‘Idol’ Tracker: Live from Arizona, the tour begins

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From standing in line with the untold thousands outside stadiums at the auditions last summer to headlining last night, the Top 10 ‘American Idol’ finalists began the final leg of their journey, kicking off the 53-city concert tour at the Center in Glendale, Ariz., before a crowd estimated in the neighborhood of 12,000. Week after week in the relatively intimate confines of the Idoldome the question was: Do these aspiring superstars have what it takes to command vast audiences? Tonight we would find out. Some observations, then, from opening night.

It is sweltering hot outside at 1 p.m. My car thermometer reads 117 degrees. The wind that blows through the parking lot only presses the heat into you. There is no crowd out front. I was relieved to find that no ‘Idol’ fans are demented enough to spend the day outside in this heat. Only in the adjoining Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant do I find signs of humanity, taking shelter from the inferno. Inside the Jobbing Center is a nicely chilled paradise, however, I happily note as I’m led down through the backstage underground tunnels in search of the Idols.


In the hallway, I ran into Chikezie Eze, holding a surgical mask in his hand. He tells me, somewhat abashed, that he just had “a little tic in his throat” and is “just being extra careful.”

Onstage, the band and crew runs through the set of the greatest performer in ‘Idol’ history, Carly Smithson, with the choreographer Stacy Walker standing in for the singer. With its 12,700 seats empty, the hall seems unthinkably vast, the idea of a lone person holding it in rapt attention impossible. As they finish the run through for Carly, an announcer intones “No. Five. Brooke White.” A piano rises from below onto the stage at which the lady herself is seated singing “Let It Be,” which she performs beautifully for the empty house.

Back stage in the pressroom, I have a chance to talk with several of the contestants before they enter their final preparations.

“This is the good life,” says Jason Castro of the relative leisure of tour rehearsals compared with the murderous regimen during the show. The previous two nights, he tells me, they spent racing go-karts at a nearby track. Two nights prior, Chikezie suggested the idea but went to bed before it could be realized. Jason’s mother, the unstoppable and vivacious Betsy Castro, persuaded a local go-kart raceway to stay open an extra couple of hours for the Idols, and the family went with Carly and Kristy Lee Cook.

The following night, Jason decided they had to go again to share the fun with all 10 finalists. Jason was clearly rejoicing in having the chance to just hang out with the others. “Being on the show was so crazy and chaotic. It ends up feeling like you almost don’t have time to be friends.”

Since the show ended, he says, he had a brief trip home to Texas during which he enjoyed a Jason Castro Day parade and getting the keys to the city, and he has been focused on writing music for his new album.

The great Carly was also still giddy from the go-kart experience, although she reveals she suffered some minor back pain from an injury that she had massaged out that morning. She also reveals that the very old, venerable hotel where they are staying is reputably haunted and that Brooke, after being told her room was especially haunted, took shelter with Kristy the previous night. She says that in the show, “you will see a different me,” that she feels so much freer and more relaxed on stage here than she ever was able to during the competition. “Kristy said ‘I’ve never seen you do those things before’ and I said, ‘I always used to but I was so scared,’” she continues. “It gives you dry mouth, the terror. Every one of us got dry mouth at some point.”

Syesha Mercado tells of her wardrobe struggles, saying her main concern is getting her outfit “to fit me right.” Apparently the piece has gone for tailoring four times and still is problematic. While saying she’s been more relaxed than on the show, and has even taken swimming pool breaks, Syesha says, there is still “definitely pressure. You still want to do well with your songs. You never know who is out there.” Since the show, Syesha has taken an apartment in L.A., although she has not had a chance to furnish it, and written songs for her album to come, which she says will be in the pop/R and B vein.

Kristy was rejoicing that she was able to get David Archuleta to go go-karting. He was initially reluctant, she says, but after going, he was dying to do it again. One of Kristy’s joys of preparing for the tour has been getting to know the boys; in particular she reports becoming much greater friends with Archuleta and Jason. Kristy also may be the furthest advanced towards recording stardom of any of the Idols. Having already signed with Arista records, she recorded a single written for her by the author of the Carrie Underwood hit, “Jesus Take the Wheel.” The song titled “15 Minutes of Shame” is due out Aug. 11 and on days off during the tour she will be flying back to L.A. to finish the album. In the meantime, she is also beginning to think about her wedding, tentatively set for next June. Planning a big outdoor wedding in Oregon, she says she’ll be inviting all her fellow Season 7ers and even the judges.

David Archuleta looks ahead to singing to the giant crowd saying “I wonder what will be different?” and that he’s very interested in seeing how the audiences on each night will react differently to each of his songs. He says he is working on his stage banter, that he wants to express his gratitude, but worries that he will “come across as obnoxious.” When I tell him that “obnoxious” is the last thing anyone on Earth has ever called him, he gives me his trademark nervous giggle and says “I just doing want to seem fake.”

When I ask him what it’s like when he encounters the screaming girls, he replies: “It’s a little weird.” He tells of his recent trip to New York when he went to see the musical ‘Wicked,’ and was recognized in the theater, which set off a bunch of people screaming. When he had to leave early, a crowd followed him out and surrounded his car.

“This little girl asked me for a hug and she seemed OK,’ he said. ‘She was very calm as everything. So I hugged her, but as soon as she stepped away, she started screaming. It was weird.”

When I ask him if it’s good weird or bad weird, he says: “Its just weird. I mean, I don’t get why people scream. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything that people should scream about.”

When I ask him if he enjoys the attention, or thinks about getting a girlfriend now that he has so many interested in him, he shakes his head. “I think that’s the wrong way to get a girlfriend. Instead of looking for who should be my soulmate, I can’t just go out and look at a crowd and say, ‘I pick her.’ ‘

When I ask him how at his age he became so committed to and serious about music instead of the more frivolous concerns of most youths, David gives an extremely touching answer that gets me more than a little choked up. Of singing, he tells me: “I’ve just always loved to do it.”

He tells me how he’s never felt comfortable or natural at expressing himself in words and conversation, but that he learned early that with music he could make people understand what he was feeling and what was going on inside him. “And you don’t even have to get the words right. If you sing they can connect with you,” he added.

Upstairs, the Idols go meet the winners of the Pop Tarts local promotion, singing autographs and posing for pictures with a select group that is paraded through. While they sign, I chat with Tony Wigens, head of tours for 19 Entertainment. He tells me that the show is rather different from last season’s, which brought the finalists together for a large number of group numbers. “People felt you should make it a cast show,’ he said.

This year, he said, they were each such different talents working in different genres that they decided to craft the show as a series of mini-concerts for each contestant. He says that unlike band tours, with the ‘Idol’ annual roadshow, they have the benefit of a standing crew who understands the challenges and hits the ground ready to roll each season, he says pointing out publicist Dru Libby, returning for her second year with the travels.

Outside, I speak with 16-year-old Sarah Scarletto, who was brought to meet the Idols by the Make a Wish foundation. Last year Sarah came close to death when she suffered a stroke during open heart surgery. Today, she seems more emotional about her meeting with David Archuleta, which she says went well. And although she also told David Cook that she was glad he won, she meant that as pro-him rather than an anti-David A.

On stage, Syesha goes through her sound check, working out problems she is getting with the mike. In the craft services area, the crew races to wolf down food before the show begins. Matt, a crew member, shows me his pedometer. Some of the crew are competing to see who will walk the most during their job today. Thus far, Matt has strode three and a half miles, but he expects to get to nine before the night is over.

I will refrain from reviewing each performance, sufficing to note that the crowd seemed entirely captivated by the night. Each singer did truly create a very authentic and compelling stage persona. The performers’ song choices defined their styles and highlighted the best of the vocal strengths. At the intermission in the backstage tunnel, Carly, Chikezie, Brooke, Kristy, Michael Johns and Ramiele Malubay, who had completed their performances, were justifiably ecstatic with their receptions. For each, the question of whether they could translate into a room this size seemed to be answered. Each one in his or her own way, was extremely credible on the Jobbing stage.

Michael, whose entrance to “We Will Rock You” was a first half highlight, embraced his wife, smiling uncontrollably with glee. Talking about his excitement for the tour and his album, he said of how he’s positioning himself singing classic rock standards such as the Queen song and ‘Dream On,’ which closed his set. “I’m not 18 years old anymore,’ he said. ‘But there’s a reason Led Zeppelin and the Eagles sell out and nobody is writing new music for the people who love those bands.”

He continues gushing of the tour: “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever been a part of. For an artist, to have the chance to introduce yourself to so many people is all that you can ask for. I’m so grateful to ‘Idol’ for this. The world is open to me now, and that’s all you can ask.” He advises with an air of mystery, that an announcement about his future may well be forthcoming very soon.

In the craft services room, the Idols eat in a celebratory mood. However, when a familiar song is heard from off in the arena, Carly calls out: “That’s our commercial. We have to watch it.” She urges them to their feet and they race through the halls, into the edge of the arena to watch a Guitar Hero ad in which they are all made up like a classic rock supergroup. As they come into the arena, standing in the opening around the entrance to the tunnel, the stunned members of the crowd leaning on the railing above break into screams. A rain of T-shirts, signs, and hats fall upon Brooke and Kristy, items desperate for autographs. The rain continues until someone drops a large cloth purse on them, filled with all its contents, for a signature. Brooke and Kristy sign, but struggle with how to throw it back up to the fan without spilling all the contents. Finally they hand it off to a guard.

As the concert reaches its crescendo, the roar from the crowd grows. Finally, inevitably, as David Archuleta takes the stage, the shriek becomes so piercing that I and many others are forced to cover our ears in literal fear that our pulsating ear drums may be about to break.

David Cook’s set leaves little doubt whether he is truly a rock star. The singer who created so many show-stopping, take-your-breath-away moments in the Idoldome showed he could do the same before a group of 12,700. His set contained one amazing piece of news as well, as he announced he had just learned that morning that his brother’s tumor had “stopped growing.”

He then broke into an extra joyous run through “My Hero,” dedicated to his brother. Throughout the season, Cook no doubt wary that it would seem a manipulative plea for sympathy, avoided making direct reference to his brother’s illness, attributing the bracelet he wore in support of cancer victims to a suffering little girl. Now, finally that he has been given some good news, he at last shared it with the audience. One can’t help feeling that he is a very rare class act, Mr. David Cook.

Outside in the still over 100-degree night, over 100 fans line a railing three stories above the driveway where the Idols would soon be loading into tour buses, their overnight homes as they make their way toward San Diego for Day Two of this last leg of their ‘Idol’ journey. And on this same stretch of concrete not a month from now, tens of thousands more will stand on line to take their place when the Season 8 auditions come to Phoenix and history races on.

-- Richard Rushfield

Photos courtesy of Getty Images, Associated Press and Business Wire