look taller on TV: (l-r) Lakisha Jones, Chris Richardson
and Melinda Doolittle.
PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen
Put on a Show!
By Shawn Stone
American Idols Live!
Union Center, Aug. 30
Millions of my fellow citizens love it, but I find American
Idol excruciating. There are the talented contestants
falling before unworthy competition on the whims of America’s
teenagers, and the intense emotional pain of those rejected.
There is the batty, often embarrassing babble of Paula Abdul,
and the dependable cruelty of that British git Cowell. The
comical first episodes of each year, in which hapless fish
cheerfully jump into a barrel only to be blasted to smithereens,
surprised to find themselves in pieces, have become a less-enjoyable
guilty pleasure as the seasons have passed. So I don’t watch
American Idol anymore.
The American Idols Live! Tour, which rolled through Albany
last week, is another matter. The kids in this show—the top-10-placing
contestants—have passed through the gauntlet of fickle phone
votes and catty comments to their 15 minutes of fame, and,
last Thursday night, they clearly loved every minute of it.
This enthusiasm was what made the show so much fun. To put
it another way, two hours of covers and corny production numbers
performed by seasoned professionals would have sucked. But
this was about the American Idol nation—an entity that’s
mostly made up of the “tweener” set—getting a natural high
from seeing their elected heroes in person. And vice versa.
The song selection reflected the performers’ talents (or absence
thereof), and was eclectic enough—including hits by the Black
Eyed Peas, Natalie Cole, the Zombies, the Beatles, Shirley
Bassey and Bon Jovi—to bring back memories of a pop-music
world before genre-driven narrowcasting.
As it turns out, five of the top 10 finishers are actually
talented: Melinda Doolittle, who should have won, sang anything
well, from the Supremes and Andrews Sisters to Aretha Franklin
and Christina Aguilera; Jordin Sparks, who did win, showed
off her light, versatile voice and megawatt smile; human beatbox
and tweener fave Blake Lewis showed he knows how to command
a stage; Timberlake wannabe Chris Richardson was a credible
Timberlake wannabe; and LaKisha Jones made “I Will Always
Love You” endurable.
As for the other five, they’re perky enough to get by—except
for Sanjaya Malakar. Sanjaya (first name only to the fans),
famous for his peculiar hair choices and conspicuous absence
of talent, was very much like an unruly puppy. He was annoying
and made a mess of things, but was essentially harmless. The
kids love him, so one didn’t feel mean enough to want to ditch
him at a shelter.
And not being very good wasn’t an obstacle to being entertaining:
The special “band” who opened the second half of the show,
made up of the five guys in the top 10, were an inspired shambles.
It was like watching the Partridge Family actually play their
own instruments, without embarrassment.
It must be admitted that this happy fun teen party was funded
by, and presented in the service of, two evil men: Simon Cowell
and Rupert Murdoch. (And I wouldn’t want to guess how little
the performers will make from the massive sales at the omnipresent
merch tables in the arena.) Whatever. It’s typical late capitalism—who
signs your paycheck? The kids in American Idols Live!, talented
or not, are having a blast on this tour, and the thousands
of kids in the audience at the Times Union Center had a blast,
Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles
Helsinki, Great Barrington, Mass., Aug. 31
Folks have been telling me to go see Boston-based Sarah Borges
ever since she started regularly playing Helsinki a couple
of years ago, and now I see why. She’s something alright,
and she’s quickly outgrowing Helsinki. Thank God for the Mahaiwe.
Touring the country to support their sparkling new disc Diamonds
in the Dark (Sugar Hill), Borges and her ace band turned
the club into a frenzied dancehall by the end of their third
song. And it stayed that way for two long sets.
Like the record, the band stayed countrified most of time—in
fact really countrified, like pumped-up-Kitty Wells-countrified.
Every once in a while they’d throw in something out of left
field, like their pitch-perfect take on Greg Cartwright’s
new-wavey girl-group tune “Stop and Think It Over” or the
proto-metal of “Diablito,” and make it work.
Borges is what my Dad used to call “a tall glass of water”
and a natural, beaming presence on stage, bouncing everything
off her diminutive bassist Binky, who looks like he could
be Ronnie Wood’s little brother. Binky’s huge bass sound was
laser-locked to drummer Robert Dulaney’s right foot, and both
were sparing, and devastatingly in the pocket. Add on top
the guitar and pedal steel of Mike Castellana, who channeled
Jeff Beck and Buddy Cage simultaneously, and here’s a killer
little band, poised for blastoff.
Borges’ voice is just gorgeous, combining a little-girl timbre
with the full range of adult emotions and super-smarts, and
she writes the material to match. Her between-song banter
was down-home and personal, greeting folks from previous gigs,
complementing dancers, and telling stories. She often played
the wide-eyed ditz to Binky’s droll asides, an obvious and
disarming shtick that didn’t always work, but when it did,
you could see the makings of the George and Gracie for the