Live and in Person

It beats cleaning pools.

Although it won’t surprise “American Idol” fans that upbeat Jason Castro doesn’t have a discouraging word to say about last year’s summer job either.

The dreadlocked singer spent his summer of ’07 on cleanup duty with his dad’s custom-pool company in the Dallas suburb of Rowlett, Texas. Now the easygoing 20-year-old is touring sports arenas with nine of his fellow contestants — including winner David Cook — in “American Idols Live!,” which visits the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday.

America’s favorite talent show touched down on the Strip this season, visiting the stage of “Phantom — the Las Vegas Spectacular” for a little one-on-one coaching from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

It essentially was an introduction to Las Vegas for both fourth-ranking Castro and third-place Syesha Mercado, if you don’t count a Castro family vacation detour from the Grand Canyon, or Mercado making a connecting flight at McCarran International Airport.

The tour format offers each singer in miniconcerts showcasing “all of the Idols as their own entity,” Mercado explains, offering a sort of sneak preview of “what you would see if you would actually go to one of our concerts.”

And if you know when and where those future concerts will be, feel free to tell Castro and Mercado. The “Idols Live!” tour lets them ride the momentum of the competition while offers are sorted and weighed.

“Right now, I think everyone’s in a different situation,” Mercado says. “Some of us have record deals (Cook and runner-up David Archuleta’s were announced with 19 Recordings/Jive Records), some of us have talks of record deals and some of us don’t know what’s going on.”

She counts herself among the latter: She knows she has offers, but they hadn’t been explained to her at the time of this chat. Both singers feel they have wider options now that the show’s growing number of alumni — and Chris Daughtry’s success in particular — have expanded the image of Idol finalists beyond the original diva-pop focus.

“I think for sure (Daughtry) started showing a different way, for more artist-oriented people to come out and do this,” Castro says. “My main priority is just writing good songs. Everything else will fall into place if you have good songs, I believe. That’s all I’m thinking about.”

Castro, who aligns more with hippie guitar strummers such as Jack Johnson or Jason Mraz, struggled with some of the genres he had to tackle on the show. Working with Lloyd Webber to learn the “Cats” anthem “Memory” was particularly awkward when the composer had to explain the tune was sung by a cat.

“While we’re kind of different and didn’t really exactly see eye to eye, I really remember him as being one of the most passionate people I ever met,” Castro says of the British theater titan. “That’s one thing I think music thrives on, or at least should. That’s my biggest thing with music, or anything you do. I love passion.”

Castro benefitted from being on the first “Idol” season in which contestants were allowed to play instruments, but tackling familiar songs was “always a compromise I knew I was going to have to do,” he says. “It was a little sacrifice to enable me to do (original songs), and now I kind of have the chance to do it and people will check it out. Or else good songs go unnoticed.”

The 21-year-old Mercado, on the other hand, proved a versatile musical chameleon who was hard to pigeonhole. She soared through Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” (which she performs on the tour) and the lesser-known Lloyd Webber show tune “One Rock ‘n’ Roll Too Many” with equal finesse.

“I’ve got comments (that) I’m too theatrical or strictly Broadway,” she says. “To me, those are just limiting comments, but I know in my heart I don’t put a limit on what I do. To me the sky is the limit.”

For now though, the Florida resident will get to know the other contestants on a new level, now that the stress of competition is gone and there’s no “vocal rest” to limit her talking.

“I never had any trouble with anybody or disputes, but now that the environment is less stressful, I’m able to communicate with people more,” she says. “We were very nice and cool with one another and we had fun together, but the closeness wasn’t there because I was so focused on the competition. I allowed very little time to get to know people.

“Now that it’s all over, I’m trying my best to appreciate this experience.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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