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james-durbinApril 14, 2011 “DURBIN ROCKS!” It may be completely random, the order the contestants perform in on American Idol (it never seems to be the same way twice). But they saved the best for last on Movie Night last night when James Durbin rocked the house with Sammy Hagar’s “Heavy Metal” for the grand finale.

Okay, if you’re like me, you never heard of this song before (although I do remember the trippy animated rock movie it comes from, based on the cult ’80s comic). But that didn’t make James’ performance any less exciting and dynamic as he circled the stage, jumped up on the judges’ table, or boogied down with his accompanist, legendary rock guitarist Zakk Wylde from the Ozzy Osbourne band, hitting every one of his spine-tingling power crescendos along the way.

 

Because here’s the thing about James: it’s not all about the power. He sings every song as if he actually gets what the lyrics mean. When he prowls the Idol stage, singing, “Are you ready for midnight?” you get the feeling he’s been to midnight a time or two himself. Other contestants may hit all the right notes (or not) and deliver a pretty tune, but when James sings a song, you feel like he’s lived it, and that’s how he makes every song his own. (He also has the confidence to know what material is right for him, as we saw in a backstage clip from earlier in the week when James politely declined producer Jimmy Iovine’s suggestion that he pick another song.)

The judges were as thrilled as anyone. “That felt really, really real,” enthused Jennifer Lopez. “That was crazy!” “You guys were just at a James Durbin concert,” Randy Jackson told the crowd. “I’m happy you stuck to your guns,” he added, to James. “Durbin rocks!” Steven Tyler added approvingly, “Nice lip to Jimmy.”

The rest of the show was a pretty mixed bag. Country boy Scotty McCreery (who you can’t say exactly challenges himself) flirted with “Everybody’s Talkin'”—which would have been interesting—but opted for a yodel-y George Strait song instead. Lauren Alaina sang (yawn) Miley Cyrus from the Hanna Montana movie, Stefano Langone gave a big, earnest vocal on Boyz II Men’s “We Belong Together” (from Boomerang), and Haley Reinhart delivered an anemic version of Blondie’s “Call Me” (a few bars of which evidently were heard in American Gigolo). Jacob Lusk was persuaded not to unleash his big, throbbing voice on either of his first two choices “The Impossible Dream,” or “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (“Don’t get too corny,” cautioned Iovine), and instead powered his way through “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (which they say was used in The Pursuit of Happyness).

Paul McDonald opened the show with a bouncy version of Bob Seger’s “Old-Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” from Risky Business, which was at least better suited to his lightweight talents than his attempts on Johnny Cash and Elton John in previous episodes. But it was up to Casey Abrams to throw a curve ball with his rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy,” accompanied by his own upright bass, bongos, and a piano. (Was this song even in a movie? I’ll have to look it up…) It had a kind of cool, retro-hip, smoky jazz club vibe to it, and the judges praised him for “knowing who you are.”

But I wonder if he does, exactly; he still seems to be searching for his groove. More to the point, does America know who he is? (After all, last month he was strutting across the stage with an electric guitar, singing Nirvana.) Casey doesn’t need to be a big rocker like James, or confine himself to a narrow field, like Scotty. It’s great that he’s versatile, but he still has to learn James’ trick of owning every song he sings, whatever the genre.

Tune in tonight, 8 p.m., to find out how America voted, and meet me back here tomorrow for the download.

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