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They look taller on TV: (l-r) Lakisha Jones, Chris Richardson and Melinda Doolittle.

PHOTO: Leif Zurmuhlen

Let’s Put on a Show!

By Shawn Stone

American Idols Live!

Times 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, too.

Crazy Diamonds

Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles

Club 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 new millennium.

—Paul Rapp

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