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‘American Idols’ tour prepares to hit the road

Concerts will benefit from longer songs and no judges, but no live band
/ Source: contributor

Taylor Hicks may be the latest American Idol, but fear not, “Idol” fans—the party isn’t over. As other television shows slip into summer-rerun doldrums, pop culture juggernaut “American Idol” will not be stopped. Beginning July 5 in Manchester, N.H., this season’s top 10 finalists embark on a national tour for the fifth annual “American Idols Live.”

Proving to be the hottest ticket this summer, this year’s “American Idols Live” is anticipated to run neck-and-neck with the season’s other mega tours, which include the likes of Mariah Carey, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones. Blockbuster ticket sales led to additional dates and new stops, expanding “American Idols Live” to a 60-date tour, with the final show on September 24 in Wilkes-Barre, Penn.

No surprise, considering this year’s season of “American Idol” reportedly averaged almost 30 million viewers per episode, and was the No. 1 show in its time slot. According to the Yahoo Buzz Index, which reports hot Internet searches, “American Idols Live” is the most searched-for summer concert. And a recent report of Yahoo’s top five overall search terms featured four “AI” related phrases, including  “American Idol,” the names of this year’s winner and runner-up, Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee, and everyone’s favorite “is he or isn’t he?” Idol, Clay Aiken.

Along with Hicks and McPhee, this year’s “American Idols Live,” features the live-song stylings of finalists Elliott Yamin (third), Chris Daughtry (fourth), Paris Bennett (fifth), Kellie Pickler (sixth), Ace Young (seventh) Bucky Covington (eighth), Mandisa Hundley (ninth) and Lisa Tucker (tenth).

Unstoppable Idol
As a pop-culture phenomenon that started on free T.V., “American Idol,” continually proves itself to be something fans are happy to pay for. Together, previous winners Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood, and runners up Clay Aiken and Bo Bice, reportedly have sold 33 million records. And let’s not forget anti-Idol William Hung’s $500,000-plus record sales, not to mention the “American Idols Encores” LPs released after each season, featuring the 12 finalists and the full versions of their signature numbers.

Naturally, fans flock to “American Idols Live,” happily paying up to $71.50 per ticket plus service charge to see the performers we’ve rooted for (or ragged on) all season. Unlike any other reality show, this “American Idol” cross-country after-party gives fans the opportunity to commune and meet (at least, at a distance) the performers we feel we’ve come to know. No one wants to hang out with the obnoxious spouses of “Wife Swap” or any scruffy, smelly “Survivor.” But the chance to see Taylor Hicks bust out “Taking It to the Street,” (and see if he’s improved some of those bizarre stage moves that freaked out even his biggest fans) is another story.

Unlike the television show, “American Idols Live” won’t feature any input from the judges. No snappy insults from Simon Cowell — he won’t be there to pick on Kellie Pickler, and Taylor is free to wear that purple jacket so hated by Simon (but loved by Taylor’s fan following, the Soul Patrol). There won’t be any peppy weirdness from Paula Abdul, none of her bizarre elimination-round comments about melons, corn flakes, and fortune cookies. Randy Jackson won’t be there to call anyone “dawg,” and of course, no Ryan Seacrest. Then again, their absence could be part of the attraction.

No one to judge
At “American Idols Live,” fans of all ages are free to scream for their favorites. Away from the television, and packed into sold-out concert halls filled with fellow true believers, there’s no need to worry what the neighbors or anybody else thinks. Free from the judges, fans are free from having to play judge as well. No need to frantically dial and redial to make sure your favorite wins. With the pressure off for the season, everyone is free to enjoy each performer in the show.

Like the “American Idols Encore” LP, “American Idols Live,” also gives fans the opportunity to hear finalists perform the full versions of their signature songs, instead of the 90-second versions cut down for TV’s time constraints. In the case of the fifth season’s “Encore” LP, this wasn’t always a good thing. Bucky Covington’s “Superstition” comes off weak and Mandisa Hundley’s vocals for  “I’m Every Woman,” are buried in the mix. Katharine McPhee’s recorded performance of “Think” makes you wonder how she got to second place.

Fortunately with live shows, there’s always room for surprises — and not just the button-popping variety experienced by Katharine this past season, when her wardrobe malfunction revealed her underthings (maybe that’s how she got to second place). If Elliott Yamin’s show-stopping performances during the Elvis Presley tribute are any indication, the third-place contestant should have something equally sensational for the tour. And keep your fingers crossed that Bucky breaks out the full rendition of Queen’s ““Fat Bottomed Girls.”

If this year’s show runs like previous “American Idols Live” tours, performers will be accompanied by recorded music tracks instead of live musicians. This karaoke concept is disappointing — it would be great to see how these promising singers perform with a real band. But considering that many established pop musicians tour with backing tracks and prerecorded vocals, this is pretty much business as usual. However, just as Justin Guarini played piano in the first American Idols Live tour, we can look forward to Tucker breaking out his guitar.

Also in the mix: expect plenty of choreographed pop star moves, mugging for the big screens projecting stage action to the people in the far-off seats, and at least one group number. There might even be a few surprise guests, just as on “American Idol” this past season, which featured Prince, Clay Aiken and David Hasselhoff.

Sadly, “American Idols Live,” is probably the last hurrah for many of the finalists. (Nikki McKibbin anyone? Justin Guarini, hellloooooo?) But while the tour’s on, everyone’s a winner — at least everyone lucky enough to score a ticket before they sell out.

New York City writer Helen A.S. Popkin has her fingers crossed for a surprise guest appearance by Golden Idol “Best Public Speaker” winner and all-around potty-mouthed diva, Rhonetta Johnson.