Look! It’s Chris!
Let’s run down the list, shall we? I saw Springsteen in Chicago, Albert King in Columbus, the Rolling Stones in Cleveland, Warren Zevon in…umm, Columbus, Chicago, Indianapolis, Atlanta and finally Fort Wayne. Saw the Grateful Dead here and there. Saw Jethro Tull, Yes, Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan, Talking Heads and Elton John when he could still blow the roof off the joint. Um, who else? Too many to recall them all. Saw Linda Ronstadt in Los Angeles, Jimmy Cliff in New York. My very first concert: Grand Funk Railroad, in Columbus, c. 1970 or so, on their “Closer to Home” tour. Alan’s was the James Gang and Brownsville Station, somewhere up in northwest Ohio. My friend Terry tells an I’m-so-old story, about going to Ohio University to see somebody like Sergio Mendez and Brazil ’66 and instead being told there was a last-minute substitution: “A new band we hope you’ll like — Led Zeppelin.”
Best ever: James Brown in Columbus, at a low point in his career in the early ’80s, before “Living in America” and the royalties from all those “I Feel Good” Huggies commercials. He played two shows, rocked the house off its foundations and lived up to his nickname.
Over all those shows and all those years, there’s one place that I would have sworn you’d never, ever see me: Standing in the midst of a bunch of 8-year-old girls and their chubby mothers, all wearing identical “soul patrol” T-shirts, waiting to see the luckiest prematurely gray man in America massacre “Jailhouse Rock.”
Yes, it was “Idols on Tour.” The things we do for our children.
Actually, it wasn’t a wasted evening. I was happy to accompany Kate to her first concert. My parents didn’t take me to mine. My friend’s dad dropped us off and picked us up at St. John Arena. That was when the concept of a parent attending a young person’s entertainment was considered an insult to adulthood. Adulthood was more fun then, as was adolescence. (As were concerts.) Now it’s all packaged and sold to the widest possible demographic slice. Kate likes to listen to Radio Disney in the car, and I’m constantly pointing out how many of the top hits are old songs covered by Disneyfied pop singers — ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Cheetah Girls’ version of “Shake a Tailfeather.” Backbeat provided by the muffled thumping of Ray Charles, spinning in his grave.
Same with “American Idol,” the repackaging of once-great hits by instantly forgettable artists that somehow, perversely, makes great entertainment. The show last night opened with the TV show’s opening theme and graphics on the Jumbotrons, which set the little girls to screaming. It’s their favorite show, only it’s happening right in front of them! It’s like they’re in the Kodak Theater in Hollywood with all the lucky stars’ daughters who get on TV!
Well, not exactly. The first person you miss is Simon Cowell. The next one you miss is Ryan Seacrest. The show desperately needs a unifying force, an M.C., someone to guide these innocent lambikins through the jungle of an arena-size rock show, because the biggest thing these folks lack is not talent but scale. They really are just like us, in all senses of the word. Standing on that big stage in the cavernous Joe Louis Arena, they were the opposite of Lawrence Olivier. You’ve probably heard how Sir Larry had trouble dialing down his stage technique for the movies, where the big expressions and gestures you need in the theater just translate as hamminess. Katharine McPhee is a beautiful girl, but she needs TV to tell us so. Stripped of multiple camera angles, she’s just a wan little figure in black, sitting — always sitting, with this girl! — on top of the walkway, singing that black-horse-in-a-cherry-tree song.
You know who has a clue? Kellie Pickler, of all people. She made jokes about how much her life has changed from a year ago, when she was “rollerskatin’ burgers around Sonic” and now look at her — a new haircut and a red bustier. But even she needed help, and I offer it now: Kellie, just because the song has “walking” in the title doesn’t mean the best way to illustrate it is to walk around the stage. Patsy Cline is not amused.
Some were revealed as empty balloons. Yes, Bucky Covington, I’m talking about you, or at least the near-inaudible version of “singing” you’re collecting a paycheck for. Others got the strange-new-respect award. Chris Daughtry, for all his pouting over not winning, will be the only one with a career in five years, except maybe Elliott Yamin, who will earn a living the rest of his life as a lounge-type wedding singer, or singing jingles or doing that sort of mid-level, out-of-the-spotlight work that fills Nashville subdivisions with respectable working musicians. Ace is ready to go back to lifeguarding, or whatever it is he does. Paris will be singing contemporary Christian music in megachurches. Lisa Tucker can continue in the road company of “The Lion King,” or wherever they found her.
By the time Taylor Hicks made his entrance, through the middle of the house — I shit you not — so we could watch him fight off the clawing hands of the Soul Patrol, I was ready to be rocked. I wasn’t. He, too, was well-nigh inaudible, although it’s hard to sing when you’re doing all that spaz-dancing he’s so famous for. I only hated him briefly, when he dedicated that ghastly “Do I Make You Proud” song to “all the troops.” Well that’s pretty damn cheeky, don’t you think? Asking soldiers getting their butts shot off for affirmation? “Do I make you proud, sergeant?” Yes, that’s why we’re fighting: Truth, justice, Big Oil and American Idol. Give me a break.
But the show had many moments. Paris and Lisa did a nice duet on “Waterfalls,” the TLC song with the nonsensical chorus. Chris did “Whole Lotta Love” and managed to not disgrace himself. The evening passed in a pleasant blur of singalongs and exhortations to scream.
But there was this: I lost count of all the Motown songs we heard, and no one even mentioned their birthplace. It was up to Taylor to finally make the connection, and it came, God help me, when he was introducing “Hollywood Nights,” “by a guy who’s from here, Bob Seger.” Good lord. Would it have killed the showrunner to jot it down on an index card for Paris or Lisa to memorize? “It’s my pleasure to sing this Stevie Wonder song in the city that gave him to us?” Huh? Maybe I’m too sensitive. By the time the finale came — “Living in America,” what else? — I’d forgotten the slight and was just thinking about beating the traffic home.