It’s a credit to the top 10 finalists of American Idol‘s eighth season — or perhaps a discredit to the series’ production team — that almost all of ’em came off better during their Idols Live Tour set in Newark, N.J. Sunday night than they did during their tenure on Fox’s ratings juggernaut of a reality competition. Whatever the reason for this improvement — freedom from post-performance judgment, lack of weird songbook restrictions, the benefits of on-the-road job training and experience, faux fauxhawks for most of the male contestants — it was an undeniable treat for an Idol geek like myself to see the contestants soar, even if some flew higher than others, and even if the touring band occasionally seemed to take a back seat to pre-recorded musical tracks.

The concert is divided neatly into two acts: The bottom six finishers perform their individual sets in descending order, essentially serving as a great big warmup act to the post-intermission appearances by season 8’s top four (the signed-by-19 trio of Kris Allen, Adam Lambert, and Allison Iraheta, as well as Danny Gokey). It seems, however, that fifth-place finisher Matt Giraud failed to get the memo about his role in the show, as he performed his three-song set with all the energy and charisma of a headliner. Sure, Matt scored immediate dividends by kicking off his set with Otis Redding’s impeccable “Hard to Handle” — a barn burner of a jam he never got to cover on the Idol stage — but he did it with such swamp-funky commitment that even before he set the piano on fire two-thirds of the way into the number, he’d managed to shed any hint of the Justin Timberlake Wannabe Syndrome that plagued his Idol run. Matt stayed at the keyboard for an excellent “Georgia on My Mind” — adding his signature hat as a nod to his hardcore fans — and then closed things with The Fray’s “You Found Me.” This final performance found Matt less reliant on the runaway vibrato that marked his season 8 rendition of the song, and instead showcased an appealing rougher edge to his vocal that, while it could be attributed to a grueling couple months on the road, ought to be something he strives to maintain going forward.

Alas, a rather unfortunate set of group numbers and a 20-minute intermission halted the energy between Matt’s set and that of third-runner-up Allison Iraheta, but the lag only highlighted the way the teenage rocker took the audience from zero to roaring after only a few raucous (and beautifully sung) bars of Pink’s “So What” (performed with guitar in hand and wind in her hair). I’ll be honest that I didn’t take notes during Allison’s three-song set, and not just because I didn’t want to miss a second of her performance to find the pen I dropped on the ground in a fit of fanboy excitement. Nope, who wants to scribble words on a pad when a budding rock goddess is reviving the spirit of Janis Joplin (minus the booze and drugs, of course) with a soul-searing rendition of “Cry Baby,” and then following it up with an equally crowd-pleasing “Barracuda”? My one disappointment was seeing Allison restricted to performing only three songs, but thankfully she was back a short while later, during Adam’s set, for a reprise of their duet of “Slow Ride.” As iconic as the performance was during season 8’s Rock Week, the live version was even more chill-inducing, as Adam and Allison stalked the stage (and wrangled discarded bras) with the polish and poise of seasoned vets, not a couple of kids who less than a year ago were performing respectively in a touring production of Wicked and as a headliner at L.A.’s La Curacao department store.

Oh, and on the subject of Adam (not to mention memorable Rock Week performances), let me just say that freed from the watchful eyes of Fox’s five-second delay, his “Whole Lotta Love” was even more scandalous in Newark. I couldn’t help but chuckle watching Adam commit multiple misdemeanors against the mic stand as the first in a series of ladies’ undergarments began their awkward trajectory toward the stage. And did he really thrust his hand lasciviously down his waistband as he snarled the line “way down inside”? You’d best believe it! But in spite of/because of the overt sexuality (choose your side), the performance was one of the best of the evening. By comparison, Adam’s take on Muse’s “Starlight” was lacking in rip-roaring energy, and felt more like a weird detour into thinly disguised musical theater, before things got back on track with a vocally effortless, hauntingly interpreted “Mad World,” that suffered only from the slightly canned sound coming from the band. Adam finished things off with a mashup of Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” “Fame,” and (a sped-up rendition of) “Let’s Dance.” Now I’ve got to admit, I’m not usually a fan of a medley, but the first two tracks in particular were such perfect fits for Idol‘s glam-rock master, I’m hoping he’ll consider a cover of one of ’em for his upcoming debut album. (An a hat tip to Adam for ripping off his jacket and revealing his bare arms during “Fame,” the better to reignite the screaming masses as he neared the finish line.) Who’d have thunk an Idol alumni would be voted most likely to keep Bowie’s outré performing style alive and resonating over the next decade? Seriously, Mr. Lambert has forever changed the notion of what it means to stand in front of Randy, (not) Paula, Kara, and Simon and ask for a golden ticket to Hollywood.

I’d been warned by fellow Idoloonies that scores of Glamberts were likely to flee the auditorium for Kris Allen’s closing set, but I only saw a few such defectors in my section, and I’m assuming those folks need a hearing check, since they were making their escapes during Kris’ gorgeous rendition of “Heartless.” Anyone who thought Kris’ Idol success with that song owed more to the novelty of hearing Kanye West stripped to his acoustic bones than to the eventual Idol champ’s actual vocal should take note that the number remains as fresh and delicious as a home-grown tomato. And perhaps just as impressive: Kris was more than up to the task of tackling The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done,” which hopefully means the good folks at Jive won’t try to shackle him in the bland A.C. dungeon (which, sadly, he did to himself during a forgettable cover of Matchbox 20’s “Bright Lights”). Kris’ other two songs — a reprise of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and a new cover of “Hey Jude” — proved he’s got a knack for reinvigorating old-school jams in a way that speaks to everyone from screaming tweens to middle-aged dads (many of whom were on their feet and singing along during the latter track). Interestingly, Kris kept himself separated from the band by a screen throughout “Heartless,” “All the Things,” and the first half of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” giving his performance the intimacy of a soft summer breeze in comparison to the Category 5 bombast of Hurricanes Adam and Allison.

So what about those Idols not who do not fall under the Kradison (or Matt G) banners? Well, let’s hand out some consolation prizes to our remaining contestants:

Best Pure Vocal of the Night: Anoop Desai’s “Always on My Mind.” ‘Noop Dawg reinvigorated his Idol dreams with a lovely Country Week take on the classic ballad, and his rendition has only gotten clearer and more heartfelt during his months away from the competition. Clad in a black vest, black-and-white checked shirt, black pants, and purple sneakers (!), Anoop proved that note-for-note, he can match any of his season 8 compatriots, although his hip thrusts on “My Prerogative” are sitting a tad uncomfortably at the intersection of crowd-pleasing and self-parodying.

Savviest Song Selector: Lil Rounds. I was not a big fan of The Lady Rounds on Idol, and after seeing her live in Newark, I’m not convinced her core competencies will see her career extend beyond covering R&B hits for the state-fair set (not that that’s such a bad way to make a living, mind you). But in Lil’s defense, I’ll say this much: For starters, she seems to have ironed out some of the pesky pitch problems and vocal control issues that made her an Idol punching bag, and her selections of Alicia Keys’ “No One” and Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You” (if not a lethargic “Just Fine”) proved as comfy as a 10-year-old t-shirt. As for her take on Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” um, well, I’ll leave it to you to vote “audacious” or merely “clueless,” but when I hear that “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it” refrain, I am on my feet and dancing, no matter who’s singing it.

Hardest Worker: Michael Sarver. Everyone knows it’s not easy being an opening act in a stadium setting, so imagine how tough tenth-place finisher Michael Sarver has it, trying to pique the audience’s interest when the bulk of ’em would rather leapfrog ahead to a scene that’s five, six, maybe seven peformers away? So kudos to Michael for buoyantly working the stage and hitting most of his vocal marks to open the show with Gavin DeGraw’s “In Love With a Girl.” That praise aside, though, it might be time for Michael to embrace the country-rock mantle Idol producers seemed to want to hang on him, and give up his dream of R&B stardom. His take on Ne-Yo’s “Closer” was as generic as a store-brand Cheerio.

Most Improved Vocal: Megan Joy. Granted, the Lady CawCaw could only do better than her, um, least successful Idol performances (“Turn Your Lights Down Low,” “For Once in My Life”). But for the current tour, Megan appears to have put her worst bum notes in cold storage, alongside her bunky dance moves, making her take on “Put Your Records On” a perfectly enjoyable experience. The decision to muddy her cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry on Their Own” with an extremely elaborate animated backdrop, however, exposed Megan’s lack of stage presence. Something is clearly wrong with the show’s direction when your eye fixates on the literal image of a blue window shade being yanked downward instead of the young lady singing the words “blue shade.” (Uff da!) To quote Megan as she gamely attempted to get the audience to clap along with her number, “Come on! Gimme a break!”

Most Disparate Set: Danny Gokey. Okay, yeah, so I’ve never understood the appeal of the season’s third-place finisher, and I can’t say that his four-song set did a lot to change my mind. But I did find it interesting to try to ponder Danny’s future musical direction based on his choices of two Rascal Flatts’ tracks (“What Hurts the Most” and “My Wish”), one Michael Jackson cover (“P.Y.T”) and a Carlos Santana ditty (“Maria, Maria”). If I was in charge of Danny’s career, I’d probably push him in a country direction, seeing how his jeans-tucked-into-boots, one-two-step aesthetic seems unlikely to fly in the pop-Latin scene, but since I’m probs not his core audience, I pause and pose the question to Danny fans: Which musical direction should Mr. Gokey take?

Best Stage Banter: I could’ve taken or left Scott MacIntyre’s snoozy renditions of Keane’s “Bend and Break” and Vanessa Carlton’s “1,000 Miles” (although his “Tell Her About It” duet with Matt was pretty nifty!), but at least the guy’s on-stage banter extended beyond the “thanks for voting for me” platitudes expressed by most of his fellow finalists. Scott took pot-shots at Simon Cowell’s critiques, and gave a shout-out to Ryan Seacrest’s ultra-awkward “high-five” audition moment, providing one of the night’s few genuine laughs. Oh, Scott, at least you didn’t get stuck with those rose-colored pants, sir!

Did you catch the Sunday night’s Idol concert in Newark or any other stop on the tour to date? If so, which performances and singers did you like best? We know that no Idol fan is without an opinion, so do weigh in in the comments section below! (Also: Follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak!)

Photo credit: Group shot: Jesse Grant/; Scott and Matt: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images