Jason Castro: From 'Idol' to lunchroom troubadour

David Hiltbrand
Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

PHILADELPHIA — Pop stars, particularly when they're on tour, follow a different schedule than the rest of us.

It's 11 a.m., but for Jason Castro it feels like ... well, it feels a lot like fourth period.

That's because on this morning, the distinctively dreadlocked singer, a top-four finisher on "American Idol" in 2008, is performing three short sets in the cafeteria at Haverford High School for groups of students on their lunch breaks.

Try the Sloppy Joe; don't forget to tip your hall monitor.

Castro, 22, is promoting his self-titled debut album, due in April, with a 31-stop tour that will take him to Philadelphia's World Cafe that night. But here, as in many cities, he is preceding the show with an appearance at a local high school.

The lunchroom troubadour was one of the most memorable contestants ever on "Idol," with his long hair, laid-back style, and drowsy vocals, reminiscent of a folksier Rufus Wainwright.

Castro finished behind only winner David Cook, David Archuleta and Syesha Mercado. Might have won the whole dang thing, too, if it wasn't for having to remember all those lyrics. Curse you, Bob Dylan, and your infernal "Tambourine Man"!

Simon Cowell spent more time critiquing Castro's attitude than his singing that season, deriding the young man's lackadaisical manner.

"For some people it's life and death," Castro says of the "Idol" experience. "If someone tells them something mean, they fall apart. I've just never been like that. I just go with the flow. It was exciting to be there, and I definitely did my best. But if you pick me apart, I'm not going to break down or anything."

Combine that imperturbably mellow vibe with the long tangled dreads, and it's easy to see why a lot of people assumed he was a stoner, too baked to realize he was in the national spotlight.

"I'm used to it," Castro says, laughing. "Even before I got on 'Idol,' people would always ask me if I had any (marijuana) or if I wanted any. But I've never, never smoked."

So, why has it taken him two years to put out an album? It seems like half the singers from the "Idol" batch that followed him in 2009 — Kris Allen, Adam Lambert, Alison Iraheta, et al. — had CDs on sale in a matter of months.

"The only way you can get an album out that fast is if you get picked up by the 'Idol' machine," he says. "They pick up two or three each season. (My) year, the winner and runner-up were both guys. They just can't sell more than two guys. That's kind of the reality."

Denied the fierce "Idol" marketing juggernaut, Castro has had to forge his own path.

At the moment, that means driving all night from city to city in a modest van crammed with four other people, instruments, sound equipment, and boxes of the T-shirts, posters, and other merchandise that he hawks at each show.

Fortunately, one of the passengers in the van is his bride of four weeks, Mandy, whom he began dating just before he auditioned for "Idol" in Dallas in 2007.

"We're having fun," he says. "It's like an extended honeymoon." (Our advice? Get a room.)

Sure, playing in a lunchroom isn't ideal. Nor was the mall tour Castro recently completed.

"They're both usually bland atmospheres under all these white, white, white lights," he says. "There's a lot of bustling around and movement in the background."

But the dude definitely isn't sweating it. This gig, after all, has its benefits. He gets to go through the lunch line before anyone else is served, filling his tray with french fries and a funnel cake.

His three-song showcases draw a mixed reaction from the student body.

"I'm really excited," says Katharina Webster, a junior. "I've watched every season of 'American Idol' since I was 8. He was my favorite that season."

Brian Meyers has his I-pod cranked. His taste runs more to Muse and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Removing his earbuds, the junior says, "I don't even know who he is. I don't watch 'American Idol' ever, usually."

Sophomore Katrina Geiger strolls over with a couple of friends, checks out the music for a minute, and walks away.

"I don't watch 'American Idol.' I was in the other cafeteria and heard this was going on," she says. "He's good, but I'm hungry."

Even for an "Idol," this is a surprisingly tough crowd. While 60 or so students gather to hear Castro sing, easily twice that number remain obliviously at the tables on the lower level, chattering away and chowing down.

Hey, they only get half an hour to eat lunch and hang with their friends.

Teenagers follow their own schedules, too.





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