Credit: Robert E. Klein/AP Images

Image Credit: Robert E. Klein/AP ImagesFor an American Idol junkie like myself, the annual “Idols Live!” concert tour is typically a perfectly timed dessert soufflé; served a good month or two after the overwhelming smorgasbord of the preceding Idol season, it provides a chance to see how the top 10 finishers fare when they’re out from under the pressure of Simon Cowell’s critiques, that notoriously grueling weekly TV schedule, and the inscrutable voting whims of the public. Last night’s season 9 showcase from the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, however, failed to follow that sweet script. To be fair, a few contestants achieved frothy new heights, but the bulk of the show had the distinctive whiff of a piece of cake that’s been lingering in the back of the fridge since late May.

The current crop of touring Idols could take a few cues from Aaron Kelly, one of the few performers who seemed to understand that when your set lasts all of three songs, you’d best kick things off with something that’s high octane and stylistically comfortable. His take on Keith Urban’s “Somebody Like You” — easily the night’s most energetic number — was an unexpected jolt: Not only has Aaron shaken off the intermittent pitch problems that plagued him during his Idol run, but he also proved he’s got a big enough voice and has developed strong enough showmanship skills to fill a stage as big as the Prudential’s. Aaron displayed impressive bombast, too, on Rascal Flatts’ “Fast Cars and Freedom.” His only misstep, in fact, came during during his serviceable take on “Walking in Memphis,” when he chose a background projection of Elvis Presley on horseback and in a swimming pool. When you’re coming off a fifth-place finish on a reality singing competition, it’s best to not make the audience choose between you and The King of Rock n’ Roll, even if the latter is rendered in grainy home-video footage.

The night’s other highlight was runner-up Crystal Bowersox, who performed with the same delightful ease and energy she displayed early in her season 9 run, particularly in those winning Hollywood Week clips on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “If It Makes You Happy.” If anything, Crystal’s vocals were more robust last night than ever: her set-opening cover of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” was powerful enough to rock the cheap seats, and her full-length version of Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window,” including a fine harmonica intro, packed a much stronger punch than the truncated version she rolled out on Idol. The only misstep of her four-song set, in fact, was her decision to lay down her guitar on Patti Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)”; with not even a mic to hold onto, Crystal’s hands alternated between two modes: “frenetic Gospel fervor” and “what happened to my instrument?” Still, by the time she ended with a ferocious “Piece of My Heart,” it wasn’t hard to imagine Crystal filling the same space with a solo tour this time next year.

I’m not sure I can say that for anyone else who performed last night, although sixth-place Siobhan Magnus might have a shot if she learns to harness her wayward energy. The creepy music box intro and Tim Burton-esque fonts that signaled the start of her set were an absolute hoot, and her magnificently ridiculous glory note on “Paint It Black” was the equivalent of a circus performer balancing on a chair on top of a bicycle perched on a tightrope; the audience gasped and giggled at the audacity of it all, but whether or not it added anything emotionally to the Rolling Stones’ classic is up for debate. Siobhan looked most at home on Muse’s “Stockholm Syndrome,” where her mournfully expressive howl and enthusiastic head-banging blended rather beautifully with the blasting guitars and projections that looked like pop-art dental x-rays. The same cannot be said for her ho-hum offering of No Doubt’s “Spiderwebs,” during which only four or five words were intelligible.

The four contestants who finished behind Siobhan during their Idol tenures — in order: Tim Urban, Katie Stevens, Andrew Garcia, and Didi Benami — had the unenviable task of trying to make their marks with only two songs to perform. Tim bantered affably with the audience throughout his cover of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida,” as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune, but his choice of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Better Days” was inscrutable. Watching him stumble backward on the final note of the song, acoustic guitar slung over his back like an overweight bookbag, you had to marvel at why he’d choose a ditty that stretches his voice to the breaking point (and led to his Idol ouster). Katie, at least, was able to color comfortably within the lines of Demi Lovato’s “Here We Go Again” and Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter,” even if she wound up getting upstaged by the brute force of her hair extensions. Didi, in the lead-off spot, struggled to ignite the crowd, though that probably had as much to do with tackling a pair of obscure midtempo tracks — the Rescue’s “Lay It on Me” and Katharine McPhee’s “Terrified” (which she memorably nailed during Hollywood Week) — than with her lilting, second-stage delivery. (Side note: I maintain my belief that Didi could be a viable recording artist, but last night, she was like a piece of plankton in the whale’s mouth of the Prudential Center stage.) And lastly, Andrew proved his rep as a YouTube cover artist with middling renditions of “Straight Up” and “Sunday Morning” that set my attention drifting like a helium balloon on a windy day.

On that note, let’s switch gears and talk about the three guys who, along with Crystal, occupied the post-intermission performance slots:

Michael Lynche’s cover of “This Woman’s Work” remains polarizing as it did on Idol. Depending on your world view, it’s either unrelentingly cheesy or undeniably moving, although the fact that he now ends the performance on his knees is, by my count, a pretty compelling case for the former camp. India.Arie’s “Ready for Love” was performed with guitar in hand, and hat brim dipped low. And while Michael has to be commended for breaking out of his strong-and-sensitive-ballad mode at the end of his set, that cannot excuse the way he surgically extracted every last cell of cool from Justin Timberlake’s “My Love.” “We’ll see you next year!” the burly personal trainer shouted as he left the stage, the unintentional threat of having to endure a repeat performance hanging heavy in the air.

Following Michael’s thudding failure to rap, Casey James was almost guaranteed to impress, and he did exactly that using a succession of guitars, particularly with the aggressive blast of the Black Keys’ “I Got Mine” and a southern-fried jam session on the Rolling Stones “It’s All Over Now.” That said, the low-key Texan’s vocals made about as much of an impression as fingerprints on a beige wall. You get the sense that Casey is one of those contestants who’ll desperately need to join a band if he’s going to have a chance to succeed in a post-Idol world. Maybe, somewhere down the road, there’s a future mashing up Bo Bice on vocals and guitar, Casey on lead guitar, and Matt Giraud on vocals and piano? Crazier things have happened, people. Lest you forget, Constantine Maroulis is now a Tony Award nominee.

And then there’s season 9 champ Lee DeWyze, who two months after his coronation, still possesses the wide-eyed gosh-ness of someone who pinches himself backstage every night to confirm that, yeah, the crowd is cheering for him. (“You guys are amazing!” he yelled at the end of his first song, his voice cracking with astonishment.) While that shtick worked just fine in the context of a reality competition, it proved to be something of a strange fit for the headliner of a major national tour. Lee needs to learn — and quickly — the difference between showing appreciation for the fans that voted him to the Idol title and acting like he can hardly believe they’ve shelled out their hard earned money to listen to him sing.

The highlight of Lee’s set, hands down, was his opening cover of U2’s “Beautiful Day,” which might surprise Idol fans who recall his borderline disastrous by-the-numbers rendition during the season 9 finale. Last night, though, Lee put his own twist on the track; the slowed-down intro was reminiscent of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin,” and his sweet/gruff/ambling vocal was like a mashup of Jack Johnson, Counting Crows, and Dave Matthews. “Rocket Man,” the other song that, on paper, should be a colossal flop, provided Lee with a similarly winning moment: When you interpret the lyrics about a swift, sudden, and sometimes lonely trajectory to fame instead of space, it’s not hard to understand why.

On the flip side, though, the songs that you would have expected to be better fits for the Idol champ — Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and the Cornelius Brothers’ “Treat Her Like a Lady” (both of which he performed to rave reviews on the show) and Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” (which, as Randy Jackson might say, is in Lee’s “wheelhouse”) — were ultimately torpedoed by Lee’s tendency to confuse emotion with screaming. The juxtaposition of Lee’s vein-popping delivery and his “I love you guys!” shout-outs to the audience was jarring, to say the least. At some point in his short, strange journey to possible pop stardom, Lee needs to come back to Earth and remember that it’s emotional connection, not volume-over-everything vocal projection, that will keep his star in orbit.

Have you caught the season 9 Idols on tour this summer? If so, which singers did you enjoy most? Who left you disappointed? Share your thoughts in the comments, and to get all my Idol updates, follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak.

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