By JOHN KREICBERGS
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There’s little doubt that “American Idol” is the best thing that could have ever happened to Kansas City’s annual Red, White & Boom extravaganza. Having pulled through a few awkward years (think “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and “White Wedding” on the same bill), this homegrown event started to hit its stride during its tweens thanks to a parade of artists hand-picked by primetime hitmakers Randy, Paula and Simon and, in most cases, rejected en masse by an American voting public obviously more interested in minting popstars than presidents. Now officially entering its teens, Red, White & Boom is starting to express a unique sense of style and personality, much like the young girls and boys (but let’s face it -- mostly girls) that packed the recently rechristened Sandstone Amphitheatre this past Saturday.
Bolstered by incredible weather that produced more suntans and cool breezes than cases of heat stroke, the show opened with Drew 6, winners of 93.3’s Ultimate Band Search, followed by the Last Goodnight. By the time the venue started to fill with bedazzled teens sporting puffy painted t-shirts declaring “[insert heartthrob of the moment here] 4 EVAR!,” Ferras pulled up a keyboard centerstage and settled into a short set capped off by this past Idol season’s official sayonara song “Hollywood’s Not America.”
[As an aside, while the new green-related initiatives at Sandstone remain largely invisible to the general concertgoer, the removal of the first 18 rows of reserved seating to create a new standing room general admission section is hard to miss. The goal of creating more of a festival atmosphere within the venue is more than met by this dramatic change, democratizing access for fans looking up close and personal access to the stage.]
Synthpop throwbacks Metro Station, sporting a timeless Hollywood-hipster-starvation-diet look, whipped the crowd into a frenzy with cuts like “Seventeen Forever” and their current summer-friendly hit “Shake It.” Guitarist Trace Cyrus – half-brother to younger sis Miley on the maternal side – made a hasty exit offstage before the end of the next to last song of the band’s set, presumedly to vomit. Returning to the stage and admitting that he was sick, he soldiered through the final song by chugging water.
Idol season six castaway Blake Lewis followed and beatboxed his way through a mercifully short set, which drew a mixed “whatev” reaction from my 13 year-old niece and her best friend, my cultural sherpas for the show. Their patience was awarded when Boston-based quartet Boys Like Girls took the stage. The edgiest act of the day (though not a feat in itself when the rest of the bill could be described as being as edgy as a box full of left-handed plastic safety scissors), BLG frontman Martin Johnson punctuated his remarkably rich repertoire of stock rockstar moves by sticking out his tongue at the crowd and regularly spit-spraying the front few rows with water, neither gesture keeping the crowd of squealing in delight to hearing “Hero/Heroine” and “The Great Escape” live and in person.
Red, White and Boom veteran Gavin DeGraw brought a taste of good old-fashioned rock and roll to the afternoon. Yet even with a little more musical meat on the bones, DeGraw seemed to struggle to really capture the crowd, even with his current single “In Love With A Girl.” His tireless working of the crowd eventually paid off by the time he launched into his signature hit “I Don’t Want To Be” off his 2004 album Chariot.
Continuing like clockwork, Lifehouse ripped through a well-polished set that wore on a little long towards the end. When every song is an anthem or sounds like the last entry on the setlist, it’s hard for the crowd to find its own stride. Regardless, when the requisite radio cut “First Time” reared its head, the crowd couldn’t help but bounce along.
And while David Cook may be the newly crowned potentate of the Idol kingdom, Jordin Sparks gave the RWB crowd a remarkable reminder of how she earned her reign a year ago at the age of 17. Bounding around the stage from the first beat to the last, you wouldn’t think that Sparks had just wrapped up what appeared to be (at least on paper) a rather grueling two-month tour with Alicia Keys. Backed by a tight three-piece, Sparks’ vibrant voice filled the amphitheatre to the brim with offerings of, among others, “Tattoo,” a short but powerful cover of Keys’ “Fallin,” and her signature hit “No Air.” On top of it all Sparks was graciously aware of her audience, reinforcing her reputation for being able to charm a crowd with not only her voice but an effusive personality as well.
The fascinating part of being dropped into an event as drenched in the transient hues of pop culture as Red, White & Boom are the cultural observations one can make of entire generation in one fell swoop. Not stereotyping, mind you, but merely soaking in the culture of the moment. While one can always fault taste or argue the potential career longevity of any of the artists, it’s more than comforting to know that there are still some things that will never go out of style. Amidst all the bubblegum, cell phones, eye-rolling, screaming, manic texting and more is a generation that is still interested in experiencing live music.