For the "American Idol" finalists, there's been basement magic


The "American Idol" finalists will soon be working to arena audiences. Some of their big moments, however, also came in basements, to audiences of one or so. Here's the story I sent to papers:  


Sure, garages are nice for bands or start-up computer companies.
But some of music’s important moments happen in basements; just ask the top two
people in this year’s “American Idol.”

Jena Irene, 17, the runner-up. Two years ago,
she tried “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” the Elvis Presley song. “I remember
playing it for the first time in my basement for my mother and she cried for
the first time in a while,” she said. “I knew it was powerful, but didn’t know
if that was just because she’s my mother.”

Caleb Johnson,23, the champion. About six years
ago, he got a call from Josh Sawyer, a rock guitarist in his home town of Asheville,
N.C. “I went to his basement and sang for him,” Johnson recalls. “He literally
loved it. He invited his parents down to hear it.”

That was the start of something big. Johnson promptly sang
in the school talent show, getting a huge reaction after the first moments.
Soon, he was singing with Sawyer’s band, Elijah Hooker.

He was still doing that last year, he says, “playing shows
with the band three or four times a week,” when he auditioned for “Idol” … a
show he had tried twice before, never getting further than the top 24. This
time, he was never in the bottom three.

Now comes the next flurry. On Sunday, he’ll sing the
National Anthem in Washington, D.C., for PBS’ Memorial Day eve concert; three
days later, he’ll take Irene to her high school prom in Farmington Hills, Mich.
“I think I’m going to be up in the air all the time,” he said. Life can be a blur
for them. Just ask:

Irene why she made the unusual choice of letting
Johnson sing last, in the final performance show. She won the coin flip, but
thought it was about something else. “I wasn’t really listening, because I was
thinking of several different things.”

Or Johnson about “As Long as You Love Me,” his
first single. He said he was handed it just two days before he recorded it. He
calls it “just a fun song,” but expects his album (out Aug. 12) to be
differtent, with “really heavy, soulful, powerful rock ‘n’ roll.”

Irene also has big ambitions for her album, which she hopes
will include at least one song she’s written. First, she has to worry about her
prom. “I still don’t have a dress and I’m freaking out,” she said.

She calls Johnson “my best friend” and he praises her music
and her soul: “She’s so funny and sweet and full of love for people,” he said.

When she asked him to the prom, weeks ago, they didn’t
realize they would be the final two. But then both kept soaring. Johnson ranged
from the songs of power-rockers Rush and Led Zeppelin to doing the music of
Aretha Franklin, Adele and Lady Gaga.

Irene ranged from singing her own composition to scoring big
on love-song week with that basement song, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Her
mother, it turns out, isn’t the only one who likes it.