The "American Idol" finalists reward after a grueling season of competition? A summer "vacation" spending 11 weeks on the road together. But at least there are no longer judges or mentors, no caustic comments, no fan votes.
And Ryan Seacrest exists solely in video form.
The 10 "Idol" finalists kicked off the American Idols Live! 2012 Tour at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena with a smoothly choreographed two-hour and five-minute (plus intermission) jukebox of recent hits and classic favorites, most drawn from signature performances during the Season 11 episodes. But the concept continued to evolve, in a good way, with more group combinations and collaborations that gave the night a more energetic pace and consistent flow than merely having the singers troop through one at a time in order of their elimination.
And it also helped that this year's class is relatively easygoing, free of over-singing and emotive histrionics or any sense of performers trying too hard. If Idols Live! isn't necessarily bigger (all but a few rows of the arena's upper bowl were curtained off, and there were plenty of empty seats in the rear of the lower deck), it does seem to be getting better.
The ensemble-oriented format certainly made for a more democratic feel, which suited an "Idol" class that doesn't have a great deal of distinction from one singer to the next. The exception, of course, is winner Phillip Phillips, who sat out until the final 20 minutes of the show and was introduced by an elaborate video montage. Sporting a black T-shirt and dark slacks, the Georgia native didn't disappoint the "Idol" fans, scatting through Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and giving Usher's "Nice & Slow" a dark, brooding re-working.
He dueted with Elise Testone on Gotye's "Somebody I Used to Know" and runner-up Jessica Sanchez on Damien Rice's "Volcano," while Phillips' rendition of his coronation song "Home," assisted by Deandre Brackensick and Colton Dixon, had an organic, Mumford & Sons-style richness that the studio recording implies but doesn't really deliver. It was also far better than the full-cast finale renderings of Pink's "Raise Your Glass" and the Wanted's "Glad You Came," which brought the show to a lightweight conclusion.
Third-place finisher Joshua Ledet was Phillips' primary "competition" on opening night, with silky renditions of Bruno Mars' "Runaway" and the Aretha Franklin-George Michael hit "I Knew You Were Waiting" -- the latter as a duet with Sanchez -- as well as a convincing cover of James Brown's "It's a Man's World," complete with knee-drop. Sanchez also shined on Beyonce's "Best Thing I Never Had," a smoky take on Prince's "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" and a buoyant romp through the Ike & Tina Turner arrangement of "Proud Mary," assisted on the latter two by Ledet and Brackensick. (The dreadlocked Brackensick, by the way, was the show's MVP, singing just one solo -- Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster (Jammin')" but assisting on 12 other numbers.)
Among the other highlights were country girl Skylar Laine's authoritative covers of Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder & Lead" and the Faces' "Stay With Me," spritely Hollie Cavanagh's daring phrase changes to Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," and Testone's muscular handling of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and Adele's "Rumor Has It." Dixon, meanwhile, distinguished himself with the original "Never Gone," an arena-ready anthem that marked the rare instance of an "Idol" contestant getting to perform a song of their own in the show.
The pecking order, which favored the night's second half, eclipsed some of the early performances, including as Laine and Cavanagh's duo delivery of "Idol" champ Carrie Underwood's "Undo It." And one can only imagine producers of the rival "The Voice" smirking over the Idols Live! inclusion of Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger," sung by Ledet, Cavanagh, Dixon and Erika Van Pelt. But maybe that fit the spirit of a show that put rivalry aside in favor of camaraderie and let the Idols show what they can do away from "Idol."
The full set list for the inaugural night of American Idols Live! 2012 included:
All except Phil Phillips: "Sing" (My Chemical Romance)
Deandre Brackensick: "Master Blaster (Jammin')" (Stevie Wonder)
Skylar Laine and Hollie Cavanagh: "Undo It" (Carrie Underwood)
Erika Van Pelt: "Glitter in the Air" (Pink)
Van Pelt, Cavanagh, Joshua Ledet and Colton Dixon: "Moves Like Jagger" (Maroon 5)
Heejun Han: "Green Light" (John Legend)
Han with Brackensick and Jessica Sanchez: "Party Rock Anthem" (LMFAO)
Ledet, Dixon, Brackensick and Han: "Everybody Talks" (Neon Trees)
Elise Testone: "Whole Lotta Love" (Led Zeppelin)
Testone with Brackensick and Van Pelt: "Rumor Has It" (Adele)
Dixon: "Meant To Live" (Switchfoot), "Never Gone" (original), "Piano Man" (Billy Joel)
All except Phillips: "Just the Way You Are" (Bruno Mars), "What Makes You Beautiful" (One Direction)
Sanchez: "Best Thing I Never Had" (Beyonce)
Sanchez with Ledet and Brackensick: "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" (Prince), "Proud Mary" (Ike & Tina Turner arrangement)
Laine: "Gunpowder & Lead" (Miranda Lambert), "Stay With Me" (The Faces)
Cavanagh with Van Pelt and Testone: "Rolling in the Deep" (Adele)
Cavanagh: "Give Your Heart a Break" (Demi Lovato)
Ledet with Testone, Van Pelt and Brackensick: "Runaway" (Bruno Mars)
Ledet: "It's a Man's World" (James Brown)
Ledet and Sanchez: "I Knew You Were Waiting" (Aretha Franklin and George Michael)
Phillips: "Superstition" (Stevie Wonder), "Nice & Slow" (Usher)
Phillips and Testone: "Somebody I Used to Know" (Gotye)
Phillips and Sanchez: "Volcano" (Damien Rice)
Phillips with Brackensick and Colton: "Home"
Full Cast: "Raise Your Glass" (Pink), "Glad You Came" (The Wanted)