Monday, September 15, 2008

The Idols (particularly Jason Castro) in my backyard

The American Idol Tour ended yesterday, and I was lucky to catch the show when they rolled into Bridgeport, CT last week.

It was raining hard that day and I initially thought that they were going to cancel the show. But everyone came, girls with ironed-on Idol photos on their t-shirts, and moms with their digital camcorders, and dads holding umbrellas for their giddy kids. I was in line, waiting just like everyone else, and just as excited. I kept thinking, their tour bus is just around the corner. If it were better weather, I would have gone there and see if I could meet anybody. But it wasn't. And I wasn't about to risk getting pneumonia just to see Jason (besides, I cannot imagine his dreads getting wet!).

I sat towards the side of the stage, about three to four rows in front of a raised platform. I prayed that the Idols would swing by to the platform so we could at least take pictures. I sat beside a family of three – Mom, and her two daughters, all excited as heck. Something tells me that I was in for a lot of rushing and feet-stomping to come.

The lights dimmed and out came Chikezie to the delightful roar of the crowd. He sings that Eric Yamin staple, Donny Hathaway's "I Believe to My Soul". His three-song set is pretty much what you would get from him – a lot of soul, very solid vocals. He heads over to our side of the stage and gets on the platform, and just as I suspected, the two girls seated beside me rushed past me with their digital cameras out. "Sorry about that," their mother apologized. No problem, I said. Besides, I would have done just the same.

Sweet Chikezie told the crowd that it's Ramiele's birthday today and that we should greet her a Happy Birthday. We did, and I hope that she is motivated to perform really well tonight. Unfortunately, that was not the case. She came out in all her sparkly glory, performing a bit of choreography and singing Jackson 5. But it was all wrong, and none of the notes hit. I tried my darndest to act interested, but she left me slumping deeper into my chair. I looked across the crowd in front, and some of them were left open-mouthed, staring at her uncomfortably. I felt embarrassed for her. I really wanted to root for her, being Filipino and all, but she made it very difficult. Good thing she sang her second song a lot better, but she needs a lot of goodwill to make up for the first one.

And that goodwill? Just came in the form of Michael Johns. Seriously, I love this guy. He gets so much flak for his song choices, but he nabbed a few that were genius, IMO. He opened with the Queen medley, then the gorgeous "It's All Wrong But It's All Right", and ended with the only song that got me on my feet and singing along – "Dream On".

Then Kristy Lee Cook came out, and, although I am not a fan, I do admit she is lovely to look at, with her trademark tight jeans and sparkly tank top. I saw the guys in front and center just staring at her, transfixed.

Carly next came out in dramatic fashion, rising from a trapdoor at the top steps with a wind machine to great effect. As usual, she sounded great, although I prefer she sang "Alone" if she wanted to sing Heart. There was a cute Carly banner in the front row and I'm sure she noticed it.

Similar to Carly's entrance, Brooke White appeared from a trapdoor, but this time, from the front section of the stage and with a baby grand. She sang "Let It Be" and was just as heartfelt as when she first sang it on stage. She ended with her own version of "Yellow", which I was surprised to hear was included in the tour. The remake was part of her indie album, and it was obviously she who suggested it. I'm glad they included it because her version was really good.

It was time for the Bottom 6 U2 number, and Brooke ran to our side of the stage, where it was unlit, to put on shoes. We were screaming her name and waving to her, and she cutely waved back and put a finger to her lips, so we would not give her away. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" is a great number, and I actually wished that the rest of the Top 10 were there to sing it. But it featured a small duet between Michael and Carly, reprising that impressive number they did on the Ellen show in Chicago after they were both eliminated. It was a great way to end the first half of the show.

And then there was Jason…

I admit I was close to losing it during intermission.

Earlier, during Carly's set, while the lights were on, I saw Jason coming up the back steps, probably to talk to someone on the band. Only those people seated on our side could see the back steps, and I sort of lost it and yelled his name. I was not mistaken. His dreadlocks are too distinguishable to mistake him for anybody else. But just as he suddenly appeared, he quickly went. That was my first Jason sighting of the night and it simply whetted my appetite for more.

And at intermission, I knew Jason was up next, and I was bummed that people would be going in and out of their seats while he was singing and that I might get distracted. I also wanted to be closer to stage. Which is why I summoned the courage to ask the nearest security personnel and ask if I could hang out next to the raised platform just for Jason's set. I figured I could get a good view for pictures. He politely turned down my request to hang out beside him. But thank goodness for small miracles (and for asking nicely), because he then pointed to an empty seat beside him, which was also next to a little girl. He said "You may want to sit there as that one's empty". That seat was right smack in front of the raised platform. I was shocked to learn that no one was seated there, and asked the girl nicely if I could sit beside her for a while (her dad was seated behind her, so I really tried to be nice). She nodded her head, and my excitement just ratcheted up tenfold.

After some Guitar Hero promotions, the lights dimmed and Jason came out. Just like that. He sat on the stool in the center of the stage and began that sweet ukulele song of his. I didn't stand up and cheer. I didn't need to. He was there, albeit in the center. I could tell he was not the type to go from one side of the stage to another and reach an arm out to fans. But I was a lot closer than I originally was, and there he was, under a spotlight, eyes closed and singing with his heart on his sleeve.

I looked around and everyone acted the way those girls were in the Pit when Jason first sang this song: still and mesmerized. It was like listening to him sing in a coffeeshop, all intimate and warm inside. He ended the song and the crowd was rowdy with cheers and screams. But only for a while. He segued into the song that earned him a spot to Hollywood, and one that I have been waiting to hear – live, natch! – for a long time. "Crazy" was just as cool and fantastic as others have heard it. It was beautiful to listen to, and should really be a single on his album (should he come out with one – and he should!). He then sang "Daydream", the song that cemented him into the public consciousness for the very first time, and it sounded just as lovely as when I heard it the first time. When the song ended, there were smiles, a few waves, and then, just like that, Jason was gone.

It was nice to see that all the songs Jason sang showed him at key moments in his AI experience, as if he was telling a story. The song when he first broke through in brilliant fashion ("Somewhere Over the Rainbow"), the song when he first broke through to Hollywood ("Crazy"), and then the song when he first broke through publicly ("Daydream"). It was like, look at me and see what I've become. How am I doing?

Meanwhile, I was there, and, in contrast to some of the fan reports that I read on the Web about some rabid reception for Jason in other venues, Bridgeport's reception for Jason might sound a wee bit subdued. But I look at it differently.

It was the kind of reception I would love to see Jason get at the peak of his career. Not the screaming fangirly kind of reception, but a raucous cheer of respect at the end of each song. The silence during songs would be indicative of the desire to truly listen to whatever message Jason wants us to hear. Being mesmerized by his sound, his music, and being attentive to the gift of song that Jason is handing out to us. It was like being in a coffee shop the size of a football field. Jason's shows would be teeming with fans who just came for the music. That is how I see that night's show in Bridgeport. It may not be the noisy kind of fan support, and granted there are non-Jason supporters in the house, but I still felt a lot of Jason love that night. And it's that kind of love that made me focus more on the music, and made me appreciate him even more as a musician. That night showed that he will be all right playing in an intimate venue or in front of an arena crowd, that his voice and performing skills can handle either size. I now know that he will do just fine live.

I just wished I could hold on to him just a bit longer. Of all the Idols who performed that night, his was the set that seemed too short. And he left without fanfare, in the same way he came onstage. Like a thief in the night, was our Jason. But his songs live on, and that is how they will always be.

The other three

Syesha came out in an adorable afro, singing Rihanna and doing a great job of it. This being her city of birth, Bridgeport gave her a rousing welcome. And it seemed that Syesha put some extra intensity in her performances, most likely inspired by her family sitting front and center. She called them out after her first song, and they stood up like the proud family they were, which was too cute.

Syesha probably was my favorite female performer of the night. She was at ease, and displayed more emotion than she ever did in her full run on AI. Her vocals were strong and confident, loud and clear. She really changed my mind about her. I was never a fan, but hearing her sing that night made me rethink my feelings about her.

And then David Archuleta came out. I have never heard such loud screams before in my life as the ones I heard when this kid appeared, Brooke-style, from under the trapdoor in a haze of smoke and singing "Angels". He sounded the same as he always was on show – gaspy but otherwise decent. His attempt at in-between banter was charming, even though the amount of giggling kept doubling each minute. He did a bit of research, too, saying how lucky we were that John Mayer came by before they did. That impressed me.

He really seemed surprised at the amount of support he had. I must say I was charmed off my seat by this kid. I think you have to experience the Archuleta charm in person in order to understand what millions of tweens have known since the very first week in AI.

I was pretty sure I was going to be trampled on at some point, and I was bracing myself for it. But when David headed for the platform in front of me, I had no idea how big a surge it was going to be. Suffice to say, I nearly fell headlong into the crevice beneath the platform if it weren't for the security guy flinging an arm out toward me. Crazy but true. In fairness, it was partly my fault. Instinct told me to stand up to snap a picture as soon as David started walking towards us. Had I stayed seated, the worse I could get was a concussion from a slew of cameras whipping up behind my head. But it was hard to stay seated when you've got David a few inches in front of you. You simply have got to record it for posterity.

That went on a couple more times, since David would walk around with each new song. And I think I was better prepared each time. I did feel very proud of him. He seemed genuinely happy and he seemed to enjoy the experience. It was like watching your kid brother finally hit the big time. It was great.

He introduced David Cook quite hilariously, saying how great it was to "open for this guy" every night. And if you thought David Archuleta's screams were unlike anything I heard before, wait till you hear the screams for David Cook.

They were massive, and really shook the whole place up. I felt my heart vibrating in my chest. It was crazy. And David came out, similarly via trapdoor and amidst smoke machines. He sang "Hello", which I didn't really like. But you don't really think about that at all when you've got thousands of screaming fans trying to give you a heart attack.

The good thing about David Cook is that he knows how to put on a show. He's not just a good singer, but a great performer as well. He takes in the whole crowd, from side to side, he looks over at people, and puts a lot of energy into his guitar playing. He uses props, and can hold his own in terms of banter. He knows how to get the crowd to interact with his set, asking them to sing along with him or cheer harder. He is simply great, and I can tell he will have a long career after this.

At one point, he asked everyone to take out anything they have that lights up – cellphones, glow sticks, cameras – and just wave it in the air while he takes a snapshot of the arena all lit up and aglow. It was a great moment, and I took pictures while he took pictures. Then he asked about some crossword puzzles that were tossed up on stage for him, and I think there was a message of sorts scrawled on the cover that he thought was funny. And at one time, Michael Johns – in white shirt and tennis shorts – came onstage while David was addressing the crowd and Michael paused a bit and then kept right on going offstage. It was great.

He sang a few more songs, and I missed hearing his "Always Be My Baby", which to me was his best and most original performance. But I guess we'll be hearing it on his first album, then. Afterwards, everyone else turned up for the finale. It was great to see Michael doing his dork dance, and the two Davids doing a lame catwalk, David Cook wearing a funny-looking wig-slash-fro, and then Jason coming out and turning around to face us – the only time he did so. It was great, and it recapped a wonderful night that refused to let the rain dampen anybody's spirits. It may have rained outside, but inside was warm and full of love for music and personality.

When I stepped out of the venue, I saw that the rain had stopped and that people were all smiles. I love how music has that effect on people. Here's hoping that each and everyone of these Idols continue to induce that same effect for many years to come.

And, lest I forget, here's hoping that Jason outlasts them all :)

An Idol Tour Postscript:

Because this Tour was strangely lacking in collaboration (and no, the Guitar Hero promo spot does not count), I have decided to create my own Fantasy setlist. This is not a wishlist, since the tour is already over. But it would be like Fantasy football of sorts. So, in honor of the nixed "Barracuda" number, here is my Fantasy Collaboration Setlist:

* Chikezie and Syesha duet on "One Sweet Day"
* Chikezie and Ramiele and possibly (yes, I know) Archuleta singing and dancing to Ne Yo's "Closer"
* Brooke and Michael Johns singing "Dream On" together
* Jason featured on drums for "Whisper to a Scream" or "Take Me Out" with Michael Johns and maybe even Cook on vocals
* Carly and Syesha duet on "Why"
* Jason and Brooke on guitars singing "Orange Sky"
* "Call Me" in lieu of "Barracuda" for Carly, Jason, and David
* "Solsbury Hill" for the guys on instruments and vocals
* a rocking number of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with Jason on drums, Cook on guitar, Archuleta on keyboards, and everybody on vocals
*"All These Things That I Have Done" for everybody

There are some performers that are featured more often in my setlist (I am a Jason fan, after all). But I did come up with some really great suggestions. I guess it's back to dreaming for me.


Post-Olympic commentary

It's been a while since the Olympics. My memories of the Olympics usually involve staying up late at night just to watch the games live. But I also remember my very first Olympics experience, when my relatives in the US sent us Betamax tapes of the 1984 Los Angeles games, complete with American commercials. I remember being enamored of gymnastics, and swimming, and diving, track and field, and basketball. Bouginskaya, Kristin Otto (and her unshaven pits), Popov, Carl Lewis, and Louganis were my idols. I rooted for Larry Bird and his Dream Team. And I discovered a lot of obscure sports, back before there were cable TV and professional leagues for just about everything. I watched archery, and water polo, and cycling, Greco-roman wrestling, and rowing. I watched them all, and I watched them in the dark with the glare of the TV to keep me company.

The Barcelona Games in 1992 were my favorite. The opening ceremony was glorious, and it still provided the most spectacular and breath-taking Olympic flame-lighting ever, when a Spanish archer, from the middle of the Olympic field, with raised bow and enflamed arrow, shot and lit a cauldron at the top of the stadium. It gave me goosebumps and sighs for days.

This year's Olympics was a big deal for me, and not just for the reasons why China being host was lauded for. To me, it meant a return of the Games to Asia. Only three Asian cities have hosted the Summer Games so far – Tokyo, Seoul, and now Beijing. So it was a big deal to me, despite the fact that it meant scheduling nightmares for US broadcasters.

We rarely broadcast the Games live. NBC would spotlight those high-profile sports, and relegate the rest to Internet streaming or to their roster or obscure cable channels. Which was not so bad, considering just how many sports there are on the Olympic roster nowadays. I saw the Philippine efforts in taekwondo live over the Internet, at around 10PM. I saw the Redeem Team finally capture the gold at 4 in the morning. Live telecasts were not so bad. But forcing all the games to air at primetime was kind of a nightmare for all of us who had work (or school) the next morning.

And there was the specter of Michael Phelps all throughout the Olympics. It was understandable. He is an American, a decent boy from a decent family. He displayed incomparable work ethic, and a charming humility up to the end. He was also a team player. But most importantly, all humility aside, he was competitive and insanely ambitious. Eight golds in a single Games? That was Mark Spitz's bailiwick. And yet he did it. The eighth gold was rather anti-climactic. But it was, if I recall correctly, the fourth and seventh golds that were won in dramatic fashion. A split second tag at the wall. A fortunate break in the relay that was won, not by Michael, but by a superhuman named Lezak.

So Michael Phelps was the face of the Americans' glory at the Olympics, and probably the face of the international athlete. And it became all too much to bear as the Games went on. Swimming was over, and yet commentators continued to sneak in Michael's name in the most inane way possible. At track and field events, at diving, basketball, and even beach volleyball. It started to get old reeeeeally really quickly.

And there was too much emphasis on too few games. I grew sick and tired of beach volleyball and Kelly Walsh's kinetic tape. Of Usain Bolt's fancy posturings. Where were the martial arts, the BMX debut? I wanted to see the drama unfold amidst wind and rain-battered sails. I wanted to see the over-the-top jubilation that was the staple of fencing. There were none of those.

But there were some moments. Like tiny Henry Cejudo literally wrestling the gold away from his opponent. Or the very gorgeous-looking Aussie Matthew Mitcham coming from nowhere to snatch the platform diving gold medal and preventing a Chinese sweep of the events. Or the Redeem Team piling on their gold medals around Coach K's neck – a beautiful tribute to the unsung heroes of the Olympics, the coaches. And my very favorite Olympic moment of all in Beijing – seemingly undefeatable Roger Federer finally winning his very first Olympic gold medal in tennis doubles. The sight of him on the podium during the awarding ceremony, all teeth and grin, a bit teary-eyed, and simply loving the moment. It was that scene that showed that the Olympics is still something to aspire for, even if you have every Grand Slam title in the books and earned millions. A gold medal is seemingly worth more than that.

Sadly, there was more to dramatic glory. There was also, as they usually say, "agony in defeat". The US relay runners dropping their batons. Gymnast Sacramone repeatedly falling on her bum during the Team event. And the lovely Dara Torres just barely losing in her final bid for an individual gold medal. Hopefully, we will see them back in London in four years. If not, may they realize that everything's not lost.

I cannot wait to see the London Summer Games in 2012.