The first time he got recognition in Santa Cruz, James Durbin, 24, was singing musicals and Beatles songs as a teen. Then he was all smoke and fire with a metal band.
Everyone knows his third incarnation as the real winner of his season of 'American Idol,' as a singer who held onto his rock roots in a competition that favors pop.
But no one was prepared for what Durbin came out with Thursday at the Catalyst – and it was perfect.
Durbin's new songs and new four-piece guitar band played tightly-focused, catchy songs that had the clean intelligence of old Brit-pop. Joined by Justin Kastner on bass (also from Santa Cruz), drummer Jeff Fabb and Blake Bunzel on guitar, he was more Queen than Queensryche, more like Madness than Metallica, Bon Jovi more than Bon Scott.
It was like when Elvis Costello debuted and it sounded so familiar and so fresh at the same time. Or when you realized that Ozzy was less into eating bats than crafting tight songs that could be played on the radio.
But it's not a sound familiar to an audience of people in their early 20s, like Durbin, who came to know him through his dramatic wails and covers of metal bands such as Judas Priest. He stepped into a new category. Durbin 4.0 is a great singer/songwriter, who sounded like a young classic rocker, almost like Freddie Mercury joining the current Green Day ("American Idol" meets "American Idiot")?
It's hard to know what this will mean for his longtime fans. Are they ready for intelligent rock, instead of predictable pop? It was sad that many stayed away in droves. The Catalyst held a few hundred people, about a third of capacity, despite that fact that his debut album "Memories of a Beautiful Disaster," was picked as Billboard magazine's 69th best rock album of 2012.
But if this new work hits the world the way it hit the loyal fans who came out, 10,000 people will claim to have been at this great small show.
There wasn't a second of insincerity in this set. Durbin was playing music he loved and was proud to share. And it was good. Really good.
He'd showed his vocal chops around town the past few months, singing a revelatory "Star Spangled Banner" at a Santa Cruz Warriors game and a passionate and perfect version of Creed's "With Arms Wide Open" at the funeral for two slain police officers.
But this show revealed a mature performer doing his own thing after achieving world fame on a hyped-up talent show covering songs by others before he was 22.
Hopefully it works and he can sell out shows without selling out.