Leaving the small screen behind for a national tour, this year's American Idol contestants have lost some glitz but regained some grit.
The stage can range from a climate-controlled city arena to the sticky, sweaty grounds of a rural state fair. Jam sessions - yes, with guitars - are encouraged. And the season's cultural punching bag, Sanjaya Malakar, has stage presence and a moonwalk.
But most important, nobody went home last night.
"You're not competing against anyone or anything. You're going out there and doing what you love to do, which is sing," Lakisha Jones said before last night's show at 1st Mariner Arena. The one-time Millersville bank teller, who came in fourth in the competition, relishes the tour's freedom - and security.
"We're not being critiqued by the judges. We're not worried about how America's gonna vote. You wake up the next day, and you have a job."
Jones and the other finalists from the hit Fox reality show rolled into the arena last night to hordes of screaming tween fans (and their moms). Even yesterday afternoon, fans - some in homemade "BLAKE IS HOT" T-shirts - stood vigil outside, hoping to snag an autograph from Idols like runner-up Blake Lewis.
The show, stocked with group numbers, can come off like a glammed-up cross between Kids Incorporated and karaoke. And the set list feels like a pop jamboree, with songs ranging from the classic "Heard It Through the Grapevine" to "Let's Get It Started" by the Black Eyed Peas. But that suits the singers just fine.
"In seasons past, you would see a set from each of the contestants from 10th and working down to the first," says Phil Stacey, a country singer who placed sixth. "In this show, you mix it up. You see a duet with Melinda Doolittle and Sanjaya Malakar. You see a lot of the contestants playing guitar."
The marathon tour wraps soon, and the Idols are ready.
Meeting with reporters before the show yesterday, Malakar looked sleepy. Third-place contestant Doolittle was peppy, but she was definitely seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
"Five days and the tour is over. This is my only happiness: After five days, I am taking a nap," she says. "It is on my agenda. It's written in. It's in pen, even."
Read pop music critic Rashod D. Ollison's review of the show at baltimoresun.com/criticalmass