By Kate Ward
August 15, 2011 at 06:56 PM EDT
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

On Saturday night in Atlantic City, 11 finalists from American Idol‘s 10th season gathered in front of an audience — which, interestingly enough, skewed much older than former Idol concerts — to prove what they could deliver when not at the mercy of Fox’s HD cameras and a panel of judges with vocabularies smaller than a shopping list. During the two hour-plus showing of American Idols LIVE!, nearly every contestant managed to surprise: When not limited to a weekly genre and schmaltzy group numbers they need to learn in the course of two days, the contestants can truly rock.

Yes, per usual, there were plenty of group songs during the live concert — but, this time around, the cheese factor was more brie than Kraft singles. Since this was the fourth American Idols LIVE! concert I’ve been to since the show’s inception — I also attended shows for season 1, season 2, and season 8 — I was fully ready to sit through a terrible Stevie Wonder medley, but, lo and behold, the group numbers were fun, well-executed, and more entertaining than whatever it is Steven Tyler is imagining in his brain right now. (Speaking of whom, the Aerosmith rocker provided a video introduction during the show that saw him mistakenly refer to the singers as season 11 contestants before correcting himself. So awesome to have such an in-touch panel again!)

Haley, Thia, Naima, and Pia opened the show on a high with a fluid performance of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Paul, Casey, James, and Stefano showed that they could sing Neon Trees’ “Animal” far better than they did for the ever-so-embarrassing Ford commercial. And the entire group — sans Lauren and Scotty — somehow eked in a performance of Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” that was artistic and had the crowd clapping, despite the fact that you’ll likely hear the overplayed ditty right now if you turn the radio.

Though the group numbers were the bread and butter of season 1 and 2’s concerts, American Idols LIVE! began highlighting contestants’ solo numbers a few years back. So which contestants impressed the most, and which failed to get folks on their feet? A rundown of the contestants, from best to worst:

Scotty: The first piece of good news about Scotty? He’s dropped the burrito microphone act. But not only can he properly hold a mic, but he also proved that he’s season 10’s rightful winner. Astonishingly comfortable on the stage, the 17-year-old was in tune, played to the large crowd, and placed his aw-shucks demeanor center stage. (He introduced “I Love You This Big” as his current “hit,” before backing up and charmingly telling the audience — who cheered for the winner more than any other contestant — he meant “song.”) Plus, his sense of humor was on full display. Scotty’s first song of the night? Josh Turner’s “Your Man.” Nashville, (un)lock them doors — Scotty’s coming your way.

Casey: Talk about an Idol flame-out. I almost felt angry watching Casey display his awe-inspiring talent during the American Idols LIVE! concert. Where was this guy when we watched him stumble through performances like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” this past season? During the concert, the sixth-place finisher returned to the prime form we saw early in season 10. (Aaaaand this gives me yet another reason to watch his mind-blowing “Georgia On My Mind” from Hollywood week.) Beginning a short set with just a bass, Casey delivered a jazz version of half of Rob Thomas and Santana’s “Smooth” that I’m dying to download to my iPod. (If only he chose not to switch to a straight-forward version halfway through the song!) Add to that an encore of his incredible “Moanin'” duet with Haley and a fun cover of Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe,” and Casey, appropriately, took the audiences’ breath away.

James: It made sense that the contestant who most enjoyed playing to the crowd began his first performance in the crowd. How ballsy James was for beginning a slammin’ cover of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” on the floor of Boardwalk Hall?! Somehow managing to not get mauled, the contestant brought his act onto the stage in time to finish the song in a logic-defying back-bend and begin Muse’s “Uprising.” His commitment to his numbers was so strong, an overweight gent a few rows ahead of me was reduced to air guitar. No joke.

Pia: The girl deserves that record deal. Pia whipped out the most original version of “Empire State of Mind” I’ve ever heard. So original, I could not even discern what song she was singing until the chorus. (That’s a good thing.) Also, Pia turned out to be one of the night’s most valuable players, providing backing vocals for several of the contestants, including Lauren and Jacob. But she also got plenty of time in the spotlight as well — not only did she get a chance to duet with Stefano on Rihanna’s “California King Bed,” but she also was given the time to perform her first single, “This Time.” Maybe next time, she’ll be headlining her own concert.

Stefano: Shocked to see him here? So am I! Who would have known that the seventh-place finisher would be one of the most entertaining presences at the concert? Exhibit 1: He took his shirt off. Yes, you read that right. During a spirited performance of Usher’s “DJ Got Us Falling In Love,” he dropped some hilariously awkward dance moves before ripping his shirt off and throwing it to the crowd. Give Stefano credit for keeping the energy high during the first half of the concert — his vocals soared during a cover of Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” and, like Pia, he provided background for the majority of the contestants. I can’t shake the feeling that this is the last we’ll see of the poor heavily critiqued lad. Still, props to him for proving his top-10 finish.

Haley: Yes, her vocals were amazing. Yes, she looked gorgeous. And, yes, she still is the one contestant I’m most eager to hear from post-Idol. But the singer seemed a bit robotic, running through the motions while delivering two songs during her set that we had already heard: Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” and “The House of the Rising Sun.” Sure, her “Moanin'” duet had us in ecstasy, but, please Haley, offer us something new! It’s all we can do to wait for your album release!

Naima: As soon as Naima hit the floor for her rendition of Jennifer Lopez’s “On the Floor,” you knew you were in for something at least interesting. (Since that is the adjective that would best describe the contestant during the Idol season.) And interesting is what the crowd got — but it also managed to be downright fun. It was the perfect song for the dancer, who unleashed her moves during the second half of the tune. Naima, like Pia and Stefano, also helped bolster some of the other Idols’ numbers, making audience members eager to see her on the floor throughout the whole night.

Jacob: Haley might be “Moanin’,” but Jacob’s still wailin’, one city at a time. His performance of Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much” even served as the audience-wide bathroom break. (One of my friends in attendance said there was even a line at the men’s room during the song, which was punctuated when someone waiting called out, “So no one likes this guy, eh?”) Yet, let’s give credit where credit’s due: His encore of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need To Get By” had the crowd snapping their fingers. Another plus: He wore a pair of snazzy blue shoes.

Thia: The contestant was adorable performing a rendition of Selena Gomez’s “Who Says,” but that’s all you can really say about her. Watching her, I couldn’t help but wish J.Lo & Co. had waited just one more year to send the young singer to Hollywood. She still needs time.

Lauren: The runner-up’s post-intermission set was highlighted with a Jumbo-tron-supported introduction, which, unfortunately, was far more energetic and interesting than the contestant herself. It feels icky to pick on a 16-year-old, but Lauren’s set was the only one to feature off-key vocals. Perhaps she’s overwhelmed by the tour — her first song, Carrie Underwood’s “Flat on the Floor,” was barely audible — but Lauren delivered performances more fit for an 11th-place finisher. By the time she started her single, “Like My Mother Does,” and launched into an off-key rendition of The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young,” it was time for bathroom break no. 2.

Paul: Wait, Paul was there? Hardly. Maybe he’s too busy planning his wedding, but the dude barely showed up. His only solo, “Maggie May,” felt like his original performance on the song, with an added dash of Ambien. That’s a contestant the show could have done without.

So those are my two cents, Music Mixers. Have you seen the concert? Who impressed you? Who failed to get you out of your seat (except to run to the bathroom)?

Follow Kate on Twitter @KateWardEW

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