"American Idols Live," the live "victory lap" for David Cook, David Archuleta and the rest of the "American Idol" season 7 finalists, proved on Thursday that the hierarchy of those final 10 singers was hardly a case of luck or chance. Everyone on the Ford Center stage had degrees of strong talent, but as the three-hour concert pressed forward and the Jumbotron counted down to the winner, it was clear why some went home earlier than others. And while Archuleta, Syesha Mercado, Jason Castro and others delivered distinctive and well-received performances, Cook schooled them all. When he was on stage, the Kansas City, Mo. rocker who relocated to Tulsa two years ago occupied that uncommon space where a performance feels like a bond between him and 15,000 new friends, and that quality made the difference between being an "Idol" and a star. "American Idols Live" began with Chikezie singing lively versions of Ray Charles' "I Believe To My Soul" and "So High" by John Legend, kicking off the evening with breezy style. But the energy of the show was hardly consistent: Ramiele Malubay performed a faithful rendition of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," but she was only mildly effective with Taylor Dayne's "Love Will Lead You Back" and Maroon 5's "If I Never See Your Face Again." Australian Michael Johns got the crowd going again with Queen's "We Will Rock You"/ "We Are the Champions" medley, the bluesy Dolly Parton song "It's All Wrong But It's All Right" and Aerosmith's "Dream On." But while Kristy Lee Cook looked great and delivered for country fans with her version of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.," she didn't project the charisma that launched the most prominent "American Idol" country star, Carrie Underwood. Fortunately, Carly Smithson was on hand to convincingly rock the crowd with covers of Evanescence's "Bring Me to Life," Crazy On You" by Heart and Cyndi Lauper's "I Drove All Night," proving that, if she wants it, she could commandingly lead a mainstream rock band. But the see-saw effect of the first half of the show continued with Brooke White's mild versions of "Let It Be," Feist's "1,2,3,4" and Coldplay's "Yellow." It's hard not to root for White — her public persona seems less hardened by competition than some of her compatriots — but her performance lacked the strength needed to knock those songs to the back of the arena. After a nearly intolerable intermission in which the new "Guitar Hero" game was flogged mercilessly, Castro offered a quirky and engaging set featuring Ben Harper's ukulele-driven version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," an acoustic take on Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," and "Daydream" by the Lovin' Spoonful. Mercado's version of Rihanna's "Umbrella" added little, but then she came back strong with Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You" and a rousing performance of the "Dreamgirls" anthem "Listen" that brought the crowd to its feet. But the audience seemed to be saving most of its energy to create jet-level noise for Archuleta and Cook. Archuleta, who was nursing a bad cough Thursday afternoon, did not falter on the Robbie Williams ballad "Angels," OneRepublic's "Apologize" and "Stand By Me." His voice remained strong throughout, and the audience rewarded the teenager with adoring screams. But then something different was at play with Cook. While much of "American Idols Live" felt timed down to the second and engineered down to the microns, Cook seemed relaxed, as if he was playing a club date in front of 100 people. He's not yet doing his own material, but Cook is a skilled interpreter — when he sang Lionel Richie's "Hello" or Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson, he performed to his strengths, bringing stadium rock bravado to the songs. He also proved he could make his "Idol" single, "The Time of My Life" and Aerosmith's "Don't Want to Miss a Thing" fill the room, and did more than mere justice to Foo Fighters' "Hero." Flicking guitar picks to the crowd like he was playing games in the family rec room, Cook simply looked at home. "American Idol" never looks like a relaxed pursuit, but Cook was just his natural self, rocking his face off and clearly enjoying the moment. The "American Idol" machine can seem overpowering in its artifice and calculation, but when Cook was on stage, the machine fell away to reveal an exceptional regular guy who deserves his "Idol" title.