Idols Live / July 31, 2008 / Newark, N.J. (Prudential Center)

There couldn't be a better mantra than "practice makes perfect" for the "American Idol" contestants. Although these kids are a far cry from perfection, by the time the top 10 head out on tour after th

There couldn't be a better mantra than "practice makes perfect" for the "American Idol" contestants. Although these kids are a far cry from perfection, by the time the top 10 head out on tour after the season wraps up, each has grown considerably from nerves-plagued amateurs into passable performers.

For AI Season 7's batch, it was obvious during the second night of the group's two-night stand at Newark, N.J.'s Prudential Center that the weeks and weeks of performing in front of millions of TV viewers and a critical judging panel has paid off. Runner-up David Archuleta no longer looked like a deer in headlights as hundreds of people screamed his name; Kristy Lee Cook (mostly) lost the uneasy waver in her voice that used to pop up from time to time. All were, at the very least, confident, which speaks volumes to how far they've come in such a short time.

In a different twist from the costumed, cabaret-like numbers and awkward between-song banter of last year's tour, this year saw each contestant singing a minimum of three songs solo, kicking off with the first-eliminated and ending with the winner, David Cook.

Stand out performances came courtesy of Carly Smithson, the tattooed 24 year old from Ireland and arguably best singer this season who met her fate too soon, and Chikeze, who fell victim to poor song choice and was the first contestant voted home. Smithson showcased her vocal prowess by tackling Heart and Celine Dion, as well as Evanescence's "Bring Me to Life," an uncharacteristic song choice that her range matched perfectly. Chikeze meanwhile had an infections spirit about him and an ear-to-ear grin that was hard to beat, winning over the crowd with a slick take on Usher's "Caught Up."

An entire row of middle-aged women were devoted Jason Castro fans, waving around washcloths decorated with a cartoon picture of the heartthrob's dreadlocked hair. "He's just TOO cute," gushed one woman before screaming hysterically when he appeared onstage. He sang a sweet, ukulele-backed "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as he did on the show, but seemed to lose the audience after launching into Gnarls Barkly's "Crazy." The same happened during Brooke White's cover of Feist's "1, 2, 3, 4," which left the elementary-schoolers in the audience with looks of confusion on their faces.

Third-place contestant Syesha Mercado aimed a bit too high by covering Rihanna, Alicia Keys and Beyonce. Her big hair and short, flashy outfit looked the part of superstar diva, but her voice didn't come close to topping the originals. The adorable Ramiele Malubay was spunky but a bit flat, and Aussie hunk Michael Johns was borderline bad karaoke as he bounced around the stage, but still an entertaining watch.

Archuleta offered a soulful, piano-led rendition of Robbie Williams' "Angels" as well as One Republic's "Apologize," which proved a good fit for the 17-year-old singer and his youthful fanbase. His stage presence was more assured and steady, and his vocals were one of the strongest and most improved.

Sporting dark, heavy eye makeup, a bright pink "BAD" T-shirt and a sparkly belt, Cook looked like he was taking his hard-rock image into glam territory. He revisited his wildly popular rock-tinged covers of Lionel Richie's "Hello" and Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," which didn't provide the same impact as his first performances. Aerosmith's "Don't Want to Miss a Thing" sounded a bit rushed, and his take on the Foo Fighters' "My Hero" was the best of his set.

Much like the show, the Idols Live tour had its ups and its downs, and more product placement than most entertainment vehicles out there ("Guitar Hero," anyone?). It's a great venue in which to see your favorites from the show truly shine in person, and though still not perfect, it brings the contestants one step closer.