Review: 'American Idol' finalist Danny Gokey at the Hard Rock
If you meet Danny Gokey, it's okay to bring up his late wife.
Gokey, who finished third last season on American Idol behind Adam Lambert and winner Kris Allen, auditioned for the show a month after his wife, Sophia, died unexpectedly from heart surgery complications.
After touring over the summer with his fellow Idol finalists, the 29-year-old released his first single on RCA Nashville Dec. 21. He's in Florida this week promoting the record and debut full-length album, My Best Days, due out in March. The publicity tour included a stop today at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino for a short concert and interviews with the press. Gokey performed inside Plum, a plush upstairs lounge reserved for the casino's high-rollers. It was the first-ever concert in the lounge.
Before Gokey's noon performance, I sat down with him on one of Plum's velvety purple couches for an interview that's running in Friday's tbt*.
Part of me was excited to meet Gokey. The Milwaukee native has such an inspirational story, and his soulful rendition of Rascal Flatts' What Hurts the Most is as good as, if not better than, the original. Plus I like his glasses.
But the Sophia thing intimidated me. I didn't want to bring up the past and keep Gokey pegged as the Guy Whose Wife Died a Month Before His Audition. Maybe he was trying to move on.
Gokey is in no hurry to move on. I didn't have to bring up Sophia; he did it for me. In our chat, he told me about the tattoo he got on his arm Jan. 2. It's a huge purple heart -- Sophia's favorite color -- with angel wings and a crown. He told me about wanting to record a Latin song -- Sophia was Puerto Rican -- with kids from the Sophia's Heart Foundation, the nonprofit he started in his wife's honor. And he told me My Best Days Are Ahead of Me isn't just the title of debut single; it's also "a great reflection of where I'm at in life," he repeated to the crowd of about 40 Hard Rock VIPs and radio contest winners.
Gokey kicked off his short concert with the single, a mid-tempo country/rock number that set the pace for the rest of the six-song performance -- mostly a preview of songs from his forthcoming album. Accompanied by a subtly brilliant three-piece band, Gokey breezed through several more "soulful country" songs, as he described them, showcasing his strong, raspy voice. With so much focus on his heartbreaking backstory, it's easy to forget that the man can sing. Idol contestants don't have the luxury of faking it.
Gokey continued with Tiny Life, another mid-tempo inspirational number. "I close my eyes and I realize all I really need is the love I have and the love I have to give," he sang.
Between songs, Gokey spoke about Sophia and Idol -- another subject on which I wasn't sure he'd want to dwell.
During the intimate performance, Gokey occasionally diverted his eyes from the crowd or seemed to not know what to do with his hands. But the performance also had some beautiful moments of -- to to steal a term from ex-Idol judge Paula Abdul -- showmanship. What Hurts the Most sounded even better in person, with Gokey and keyboardist/background vocalist Brandon Fraley harmonizing flawlessly, and acoustic guitarist Defraim Santiago adding a slick Spanish flair between verses. Gokey also gestured expertly on this song, which could have something to do with the fact that he performed it on Idol.
Soon Gokey loosened up further, removing his plaid jacket and getting the crowd clapping on his penultimate number, Be Somebody. For me this song was the highlight of the show, with a faster beat, the crowd clapping and Gokey going all out with his soulful voice. Even the guests who appeared to be there only for the free coldcuts and chocolate-covered strawberries looked up from their plates. If Be Somebody had been around when Gokey was a contestant on Idol, perhaps things would have worked out differently.
Sophia would be proud.
You can listen to Gokey's song My Best Days Are Ahead of Me here. Then maybe, just maybe, you'll start to think of him less as Guy Whose Wife Died a Month Before His Audition and more as Guy with the Amazing Voice.
-- Text and photo: Dalia Colon, tbt*.