Sleek, blonde and full of metal, James Durbin looked every bit the rock star as he played the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Saturday to about 3,000 fans Saturday.
Yeah, that was a tenth of the audience that packed the place last year for Durbin Day, just after he got voted off the pop star island, but these fans were the loyal Durbinators who were there to support him no matter what.
It's amazing the difference a year makes. Or rather, a year off TV. Fans of the tube have a short attention span for most everything, even the stars who ruled their world 12 months ago.
But Durbin threw down the glove and played the music he loves: heavy metal, not TV pop. This wasn't metal lite, either. His band of five layed down a heavy backing, sounding almost like young Sabbaths or Priests. The biggest problem was, however, for metal or pop, there just weren't enough hooks to make the songs stick.
He ran though most of his debut album, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, but live the songs lacked the punched-up production values of the disc and fell a bit flat in a sonic wall of mush.
His voice, particularly on the falsettos, was stellar and brought to mind a mix of Geddy Lee from Rush and Ronnie James Dio, but in this setting, it was hard to hear the subtleties that made him an Idol hit. Too much of it just blended together.
His cover of Dio's "Rainbow in the Dark" was the set's strongest song, well-written and with a hook solid enough to catch a killer whale.
But either the band lacked the ability to make the songs shine or the songs just didn't have the singalong quality live that they do on the disc.
The fans loved them, however, cheering loudly after each, so the hour-long show was mostly a success. But that may not be easy to see when you compare this to the unbridled enthusiasm from 30,000 people a year ago.
You've got to give Durbin credit for not selling out in the least. He could have slowed things down, hammed it up, come up with more pop songs that would please the TV fans. But he played metal, something that is diametrically opposed to everything "American Idol" is about.
He may not be close to selling out arenas on his own yet, but the fact that he wouldn't water down or commercialize his artistic vision gives one hope that he may still set the world on fire.
He's got the performing talent. His debut album has sold 106,000 copies in six months, which is admirable, if not stellar. It buys him time to keep touring, writing and working.
It may take a while, but I wouldn't doubt that he'll hit on a formula that will let him play what he loves and what a bigger audience loves also.