One of the most enjoyable things about watching David Archuleta during the weekly editions of that reality show was the way in which he managed to bring subtle new dimensions to his performances each week. We found out later in Dean Kaelin’s e-published journal that David was not only evolving his approach to performing–his comfort level, his engagement with the audience, his connection with the material–but that he was still contending with physical changes to his voice. In retrospect, it is remarkable that David was able to bring so much consistency to his work, while continuing to raise his game each and every week.

One of the delights of the post-contest press rounds was that the previously stark contrast between David’s assurance in performance and what appeared to be almost crippling limitations in any other realm of public engagement seemed to magically disappear. In interview after interview, appearance after appearance, David was suddenly bright, appealing–articulate!–to the point where many wondered, “where was this David during the course of the show?”

Some put it down to the amazing support he felt during his homecoming; some said it was the realization, finally (incredible as it might seem), that he did indeed possess the talent and ability to be where he was. Still others said it was simply a matter of his growing maturity.

All of these are no doubt contributing factors to the young man’s increasingly successful public persona, but after seeing David in his opening night concert performance, made possible through the mobile-media equipped multitudes (I love David, but I draw the line at having to install myself amidst hoards of screaming pubescent girls; I’m afraid I may have to wait for Carnagie Hall–which shouldn’t be long now), I am convinced that David was shackled during the contest not so much by his own inexperience or doubts, but indeed by the nature of the contest itself. David is the antithesis of a competitor. He doesn’t judge others and likely feels utterly disconnected when he is subjected to judgment himself. It is clear now that David didn’t feel at all free.

What surprised me most about the concert, however, was the degree to which this new-found freedom has evidently influenced David on-stage. What was it that was so vivid in David’s opening night that portrayed this contrast so strongly? One word:

Joy.

It is clear only now that the level of exuberance he displayed, the utter rapture he conveyed–in his soaring rendition of Angels, his soulful take on Apologize, and especially his unbridled and thrilling version of Stand By Me–had been to a considerable extent sublimated during the course of the show series. Perhaps because for the first time in a real concert setting there was no glaring panel of analysts to get between David and the crowd, the connection between he and his audience–so genuine, so palpable even in spite of that barrier before–veritably leaped through the tiny cell-phone videos.

Like any great performer, David’s work is not a presentation but a relationship. It’s what makes people so moved and ultimately so devoted to this remarkable individual. David is getting much more comfortable in public situations outside his performances, but it was apparent on Tuesday night that there cannot possibly be anywhere else in life that David Archuleta feels as much of who he is and where he belongs than on a stage with a mic in his hand and an audience in his sights.

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When You Say You Love Me
I confess I was a little concerned when I learned that David had chosen to sing a Josh Groban song. In their typically lazy fashion, the press has been squelching any indications of originality by making unimaginative comparisons between David and a handful of other performers, including Josh Groban, for some time now. Although it is certainly a more respectable comparison than to, say, the vacuous and irrelevant Jonas Brothers, David in fact has far more versatility than Josh Groban, and I didn’t think it was a terribly good idea to encourage those comparisons by doing a song that is so closely associated with him.

Boy, was I wrong.

As much as I like Josh Groban, his version of When You Say You Love Me now seems so perfunctory, so studied compared to David’s. David infuses his performance of this song with what I can only think to call a hunger. He takes what had been a sweet song and turns it into a profound yearning. It is deeply emotional. David has an uncanny ability to use both phrasing and tone to paint unusually rich musical portraits of human experience. It is simply stunning.

Please, David, book Carnagie Hall already. Or I may have to consider wading through a sea of screaming, cell-phone wielding pubescence.