Tuesday (March 30) night is Soul and R&B Night for the “American Idol” Top 10.
After the unavoidable mockery that accompanied last week’s guest mentor, a certain Ms. Miley Cyrus, I can’t say anything bad about Tuesday’s mentor. Usher’s status in the recording industry and the world of popular music is hard to contest. Let’s hope he can help the Top 10 on Tuesday.
Recap of the performances after the break…
Singer: Siobhan Magnus
Song: “Through the Fire”
My Take: Clark Kent Siobhan describes herself as “wicked nervous” to meet Usher. Unlike Miley Cyrus last week, Usher is making no pretense that he knows who any of these people are. But he’s impressed by Siobhan. There are weird vibrato moments early in her performance and then when Siobhan gets to the chorus there’s an odd nasal tone. Instead of one big Siobhan Scream, the “American Idol” Munch-kin delivers two or three mini-screams, with diminishing returns. Siobhan’s also settled into some strange facial mannerisms to accompany her performances. She almost transforms into a Barbara Streisand clone at certain points, eyes squinty, nose wrinkled. I like the silver space boots, but this is the second straight week that Siobhan has really let me down, as the gap between Crystal and the rest of the field just grows.
Randy, Ellen, Kara and Simon Say: Randy thought it was a little all-over-the-place for Randy, but he loves her “courageousness and conviction.” He eventually goes so far as to call it “kind of rough.” Ellen compares it to a hiker who misses the trail, then calls it “dessert before the meal.” Kara gives Siobhan credit for nervous and says she was entitled to one off week. [Actually, she had an off week last week.] Simon thought Siobhan was out of breath, comparing it to somebody singing at the end of a marathon. He tells her it was “by far” her weakest performance. There’s much too much flab in tonight’s episode and Ryan isn’t great at this sort of vamping. It’s like he’s going all Socratic Method, leading debate with the judges.
Singer: Casey James
Song: “Hold On (I’m Coming)”
My Take: Casey, with his bluesy, rootsy background, knows that this out to be a perfect theme for him. Usher agrees. So far, Usher hasn’t provided any mentorship that we’ve seen, but he’s easily impressed. This Sam & Dave track has never been seen on the “Idol” stage and coming after Siobhan’s wobbly opener, Casey looks and sounds controlled and confident. He cedes a little too much of the chorus to the backing singers and he unavoidable gets a little lost in the brass section. He also gives over 10 or 15 seconds of his valuable real estate to guitar solos and letting the band play. I don’t know how much Casey had to do with it, but that was just an entertaining 90 seconds. This performance, like several other recent Casey James joins, doesn’t necessarily show much star power, but he keeps proving every week that if you put him with a good group of musicians, he could front a totally competent cover band. And unlike last week, this isn’t carbon copy karaoke. It’s an interpretation within the spirit of the genre.
Randy, Ellen, Kara and Simon Say: Yo. Check it out. Listen. Randy tells Casey this was another hot night. Ellen praises Casey’s consistency, but she also thought the performance was a bit generic. Kara thinks Casey has more range than he’s had the chance to show. Simon disliked Casey last week, but he thought this was Casey’s strongest week so far. Ryan resurrects the “Kara wants to boff Casey” humor. Kara’s incredulous. Casey teases he’s going acoustic next week.
Singer: Michael Lynche
Song: “Ready For Love”
My Take: Usher advises Big Mike to project and look through the camera at all of us at home. This was a week I was looking forward to hearing Michael. This is not the song that I would have been looking forward to hearing him sing. But maybe the limitation was in my imagination, not in Big Mike’s talent. He’s sitting on a confusing platform out in the audience, over the shoulder of the judges, who look the other way through his whole performance. Usher’s advice is wasted, because the director goes almost the duration of the performance without a single direct close-up of Big Mike. Is he trying to project through the camera at me? I don’t have a clue. Instead, I see lots of audience members waving their arms. It’s a nice, if somewhat subdued and unchallenging, vocal from Mike. He’s Big Mike, but this is not a big song he chose to sing. He gets the emotion, in a low-key and relaxed way.
Randy, Ellen, Kara and Simon Say: Randy is loving every performance, but it wasn’t exciting. How would Randy know? He was facing the other way. Ellen complains about Big Mike singing behind her back, but she calls it beautiful. Kara raves that Big Mike “mastered the intention” of the song. Simon says this is the first time since the live shows began that he can take Mike seriously as an artist. Ryan says that the judges were watching the performance on the big screen. Ryan asks Usher’s opinion on the performance. Ah, a callback to the substance-free days of guest judging.
Singer: Didi Benami
Song: “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted”
My Take: This song makes Didi emotional and Usher is looking forward to seeing this honesty from Didi. But Didi’s worried that the song may actually be too emotional for her. She looks gorgeous, but she’s hampered by an inexplicably upbeat arrangement that drains any emotion she might be trying to inject. I mean, I guess the song is optimistic. But that’s not the way Didi indicated she wanted to sing it. There’s a nice deviation from the familiar melody at the end, a break that lets Didi let loose a little. It’s too little, too late on the drama. This was bland and disappointing.
Randy, Ellen, Kara and Simon Say: For Randy, the performance flatlined a little. Flatlined, Randy? Let’s hope she wasn’t dedicating this to her deceased friend. Ellen thought it was too dramatic and she boos herself. Kara’s confused because Didi has lost her way since that Hollywood performance where she gave off the singer-songerwriter buzz. “It was like swimming in jelly,” Simon explains, calling it “over-the-top” and “old-fashioned.” Simon compares it to the desecration of songs you might hear on “Dancing with the Stars.” Ryan asks Didi to explain why the song moves her. Didi says she isn’t an R&B singer, so she did what she could. There’s an awful and awkward moment where Ryan tries to force Didi to say who she was singing the song for. Didi doesn’t want to. The judges try to save her. Finally Ryan says that Didi was singing it for somebody and we’ll leave it at that. Finally, after all of that poking and prodding, Ryan gets tears out of Didi. If I were there now, I think I’d hit him. If the only way Seacrest knows how to fill time is by making girls cry, what’s he going to do next week when we have two hours for only nine performances?
Singer: Tim Urban
Song: “Sweet Love”
My Take: Usher didn’t believe Tim when he started singing. Usher asks Tim to pretend that he’s the love of his life, but Tim Urban is way to heterosexual to believe that Usher is the love of his life. Teflon Tim begins his performance sitting on a stoop. It’s the most earnest position he can imagine. He couldn’t pretend that Usher was the love of his life, but he’s convinced that he and the camera are going to go off somewhere after the show to make babies. His direct address to the camera is, to put it nicely, creepy. Dude. Stop looking at me like that and STAY BACK. Tim doesn’t have the range to do this song justice even with all of the big high notes trimmed out. Most of the notes he’s asked to sing are in tune. So there’s that. I’d also give him credit for not doing a reggae version of “Sweet Love.” And also for not sliding across the stage. That’s the silly thing: TIM IS ACTUALLY TRYING. The past two weeks? It was just a joke to him and it showed. This is Tim putting forth the effort.
Randy, Ellen, Kara and Simon Say: So listen. Yo. Randy thought it was a singing waiter thing in the beginning, but at least he sang in tune. Randy and I are speaking the same language. Ellen calls Tim “adorable” because of some lame Internet drinking game. She mocks his odd tip-toing. “Good for you for taking that on, but oh boy, why?” Ellen says. Kara accuses Tim of taking the soul out of the song. Three straight judges mock him and Tim is just up there laughing. Simon agrees that it doesn’t make any difference what they say. “It’s like a mouse picking a fight with an elephant,” Simon says, before saying that it won’t matter and Tim will be here next week. This is the reverse psychology that Simon has used to get previous seasons’ versions of Tim voted out.
Singer: Andrew Garcia
My Take: Oh my goodness. Singing Chris Brown on a show that caters to teenage girls requires gonads of steel. And brains of pablum. After two awful weeks of guitar-free singing, there’s a great relief in Andrew going back to basics. It’s Andrew, his guitar and a stool (the strings and the dude on percussion are off to the side). It’s a big improvement from those guitar-free weeks, but it’s also a performance where his main accomplishment is draining everything soulful from the song. Then again, that’s what the judges like Andrew to do, to turn any song, no matter the genre or style, into an easy-going soundalike. Mission accomplished here.
Randy, Ellen, Kara and Simon Say: Randy welcomes Andrew back, calling his outfit “mad dope” and the performance “dope.” Ellen says it was an “amazing-strong” performance. Kara is so very happy for Andrew, as she calls it “One giant leap in the right direction.” Simon’s only problem is that as a person, Andrew is boring. Somebody in the audience instructs Simon that he’s boring. Simon tries to clarify that we’ve reached the point in the competition where personality is important. Ryan instigates a fight between Simon and Mama Garcia. They hug in what’s probably only the sixth or seventh most awkward moment of the night.
Singer: Katie Stevens
Song: “Chain of Fools”
My Take: Speaking of gonads of steel, Katie Stevens doing Aretha Franklin is a kinda big gamble and even Usher can’t quite predict what’s going to come of it. Heck, even Ryan can’t resist saying what a huge song Katie is doing. Usher’s advice to Katie was to personalize the song. If anybody sees any evidence of that, let me know. But vocally? The song doesn’t crush her, which is a high compliment for a 17-year-old singing Aretha Franklin. Katie’s been up and down this season, but this is Katie living up to her full potential: Diana DeGarmo 2.0. You know who beat Diana DeGarmo? That’s right, Fantasia Barrino, singer of the definitive “Idol” version of “Chain of Fools.”
Randy, Ellen, Kara and Simon Say: So listen. Couple things. Randy though the performance was disconnected, but still one of the best vocals of the night, comparing her to a young Christina. Ellen goes back to the Snookie pouf again. She wanted the song to be younger and more current, but liked the vocal. Kara says this is where Katie belongs, but she has to go back to making it young and commercial. Simon says Randy’s Christina comparison is crazy. He calls it cold and robotic, but also “pretty, pretty good.” Simon and Kara return to their fight about what kind of an artist Katie is. Ryan asks who Katie’s going to listen to. She whispers loudly, “Myself.”
Singer: Lee Dewyze
Song: “Treat Her Like a Lady”
My Take: Usher just wants Lee to own it. And Lee agrees that the only thing holding him back is him. Finally. This is the first performance of the entire evening that has just made me happy. It starts with Lee on his guitar and by the time the band and backing singers join in, Lee is rolling. Unlike with Casey, the accompaniment isn’t sharing Lee’s spotlight, because Lee understands that this performance is supposed to to be about him. This is the most authentic and energetic Lee has been for weeks and it is, at least until we get to Crystal, the night’s best performance.
Randy, Ellen, Kara and Simon Say: Yo. Yo. Yo. Check it out. Check this out. Randy calls it “unbelievable.” “Now the night’s started,” Ellen says. Kara says it could have been on Lee’s record. Simon’s always believed in Lee and he tells Lee that this was the night his life may have changed forever. Lee, not so great with compliments, sticks his guitar pick in his mouth and smiles sheepishly.
Singer: Crystal Bowersox
Song: “Midnight Train to Georgia”
My Take: Crystal promised last week that she was going to mix things up this week. The twist? Crystal’s playing the piano instead of guitar. She admits she hasn’t regularly played piano for a while. She’s got three Ray-lettes looming over the piano. She’s only on the piano in the beginning. It’s almost a gag that she’s bothering at all. Like she’s winking at us and saying, “This isn’t what I do, but I wanted to do something different.” Soon, she’s standing up and taking center stage without any instrumental crutch and teetering just a bit on her high heels. No, Crystal doesn’t look quite as comfortable without her guitar, much less dolled up in a dress and heavy makeup. But one thing she proves is that her real instrument — that being her voice — stands out regardless of what’s happening. It’s almost unfair, because as much as I liked Lee, Crystal was many times better, despite almost literally hobbling herself in the name of leveling the field a little.
Randy, Ellen, Kara and Simon Say: Randy says Crystal did Gladys proud. Ellen whips out a “in it to win it” quote. Kara’s pleased Crystal took the risk. Simon says the backing vocalists shouldn’t have been there and he warns Crystal not to let the process suck the identity out of her. Crystal protests that she felt comfortable and liked wearing high heels.
Singer: Aaron Kelly
Song: “Ain’t No Sunshine”
My Take: I get that Crystal can’t just be given the pimp slot every week, but why can’t Crystal just be given the pimp slot every week? Usher’s a big Aaron Kelly fan, but how will Aaron pull off this icon track? Your answer? With a lot of vocal vibrato. It’s been so long since “Idol” has had a good cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” What? You mean Kris Allen just did a good cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” last season? A cover that was far better and infinitely more distinctive than this one? Oh. Never mind. Heck, Lee’s audition rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine” was better than this one. Does anybody else find it impossible to buy Aaron Kelly as a soulful brooder? Limitations and bleating aside, it’s a decent vocal for Aaron. It’s far below the standard set by the past two performers, but if he’d come earlier in the night, I’m certain I’d have been more charitable.
Randy, Ellen, Kara and Simon Say: Yo. Yo. Listen. It started rough for Randy, who wanted a little more soul flavor. Ellen’s impressed an 11-year-old was able to do so well. Kara “liked” it. Simon calls it “a cupcake” compared to Lee, but that there’s no chance he’s leaving the competition.
TONIGHT’S BEST: Crystal Bowersox and Lee Dewyze were the night’s best.
TONIGHT’S WORST: Tim Urban continues to be the man to beat in this department, though Didi Benami gave him a run for his money.
IN DANGER: Tim and Didi are both likely to be in the Bottom Three. Overpraised performance aside, I think Andrew Garcia joins them. I say Simon’s reverse psychology works this week and Tim goes home, though Didi’s elimination wouldn’t shock me.
What’d you think of Tuesday’s performances? Who’d you like? Who’d you hate? Who’s going home?