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No time for frills. No time for filler. This is an action packed 90 minutes where the contestants are required to serve up two songs – one current and one from the past; hence the theme name, Now and Then. Steven, JLo and Randy are already seated at the judging table when the stage is revealed; no elaborate walkout to screaming crowds. That is reserved for Ryan and he doesn’t waste any time with bows.
We hear that Sheryl Crow will join mentor, Jimmy Iovine for the initial rehearsal sessions, so get ready to rock and roll as there is no time to lose. Oh, wait…there is time for one piece of pithy advice to the contestants. Randy (like a judge high on the bench lecturing miscreants) “Everybody is wondering who is in it to win it. It’s no longer just to be good…we’re getting down to the final American Idol and that’s one person. We want to know – who is going to do it.”
Well, I guess it’s not a lecture so much as a gauntlet thrown challenge. Who accepted?
ROUND 1: NOW (Modern Era)
James Durbin: "Closer to the Edge" 30 Seconds to Mars (Jared Leto)
During the mentoring session, James is stoked to have Sheryl Crow sing the back-up harmony to his song.
Sheryl: I got to sing with James. I guess I can officially retire now.
Jimmy tries to convince James that he fits in the modern era and not as a throwback to heavy metal. We heard this same theme last week from Jimmy, so it will be interesting to see where James eventually lands - now or then.
Once onstage he wears a leather vest with the words Give Metal a Chance written on the back in red. Even though he told Jimmy he agreed with him, will he give up metal?
Why does he call for an audience scream in the beginning of the song, which starts out soft and low? When he hits the audience floor in fuller voice, he motions for a few laggards to stand…is he pushing too hard to gain audience cred? Back on stage he throws in a note that would make my dog howl, if I had one. While I have enjoyed previous James’ stage shows, I felt he tried too hard with this one.
Steven thinks James kicked that song’s a** (but I noticed he was late to the applause party.) Nice going, man, beautiful. The way you worked the audience, you’re ready for Freddy (Mercury) I think.
JLo: In the past few weeks you’ve been showing us that you want it. We’re feeling it. It’s yours to take, James.
Randy: You fit well with that sort of song. You’ve shown us the type of record you could make so it doesn’t date you just in an older rock category.
Should James burn his leather vest and take a leap into the 21st century, or will he wear it proudly?
Jacob Lusk: "No Air" Jordin Sparks with Chris Brown (James Fauntleroy II, Eric Griggs, Michael Scala, Harvey Mason, Jr., Damon Thomas and Steve Russell)
Jacob gets the Ryan center stage interview in front of the Coke graphic and answers the “duh” question by telling Ryan he definitely feels he can win the competition, though he still feels like an underdog.
His first rehearsal in front of Sheryl and Jimmy includes the addition of Harvey Mason who co-wrote and produced the original track. Sheryl thinks Jacob shows his vulnerability with his arrangement, but Jimmy has concerns because he is singing both parts of a duet.
Once he goes beyond a nice, soft opening - the vulnerability Sheryl mentioned – he takes it into power mode and loses pitch. (Even I, who am pretty much tone-deaf, could tell he went off into the wilderness.) They do try to distract us with roiling fog, but…the judging table is sitting on their hands when he finishes.
JLo: There’s no doubt you are a showman and there’s no doubt you have one of the best voices, but your choice of songs each week is so different. You need to find that and stick with it.
Randy: Singing the duet parts kind of made the whole thing corny for me…most of it was sharp. I see you as a Luther kid, a church kid.
Steven: We’re waiting for you to find that niche. I love your voice and every time you bring something new…but, we’re waiting for that certain something that is you.
Is Jacob tired of being named a Luther kid?
Lauren Alaina: "Flat on the Floor" Carrie Underwood (Ashley Monroe and Brett James)
Lauren’s first comment during rehearsal is, “This is a hard song.” Sheryl thinks she should sing it standing in place, not move around the stage, and try to bring the audience to her rather than go to them.
Lauren counts out the beats, which cues up the distracting, hunky violinist who played on her song last week. She does stay pretty much in place, using her thigh high boots to stomp out the rhythm. When she goes into upper register the first time, she loses a bit of power, but she rocks it out to the very last note.
Randy: Lauren that is the direction for you. I love you showing this fun, energetic side; you’re connecting with the audience.
Steven: The way you sing, the way you found your niche is simply as good as it gets. The sky’s the limit, I think you’re it.
JLo: That’s what we’ve been pushing for from you. That’s what you have to do – every time.
Scotty McCreary: "Gone" Montgomery Gentry (Bob DiPiero and Jeffrey Steele)
Once again, this time at the lead-in to a commercial, they place Scotty in a huddle of girls and Ryan once again calls him Scotty “the body”. Oh, yuck, Ryan or Lythgoe or whoever else thinks this is cute or clever. Have done with the hard Scotty sell. If he gets the votes, he gets the votes. If he wins the title or leaves, he’ll be all right without you constantly pushing the boy singer on the audience.
Jimmy thinks Scotty chose the right song because it has a lot of grit and a rock feel. Scotty seems to be trying to get away from Randy naming him a bore. Sheryl tells him he has a big career ahead of him.
The performance tone is set by two electric guitars pointing the way to center stage. Scotty makes his entrance out of the audience and has his dance style going as he hits the stage. Then…gasp…he takes a giant leap from the stage to the platform landing a bit awkward. What if he had fallen? He didn’t, though, and timed his landing to be on the beat. He then ups the energy and rocks the song around the platform back to the stage. This performance is fun and bouncy – not boring.
Steven: I’ve thought you were a bit of a puritan, but I saw you dance with the devil tonight. That’s a good thing for you every now and then.
JLo: I lost it there for a second, I was so excited. You owned that stage. I heard some growling in there. That is some American Idol stuff right there.
Randy: I don’t want you to dance with the devil. Who knew you could rock the stage like that, dude?
Haley Reinhart: "You and I" Lady GaGa version
Lady GaGa has a knack for putting together lyric and music where phrases of her songs get stuck in one’s head – at least in my addled brain. As this song is not one of her original creations, it is easy to see why she has never recorded it as a track. Why would Jimmy think this song would be a good fit for Haley?
During her Coke sit down with Ryan, Haley reveals she was also having misgivings and spoke to Lady GaGa to get her blessing on performing the song. Since Lady GaGa was excited about it, Haley decided to go for it.
Jimmy: She’s got IT and taking on this song is just another way of showing that she’s got it.
Haley uses the long stairs as a lounger and, with a piano background, slides into the song. Moving into her bluesy growls, she hits the stage as strings and singers join in to build the song to a riff-ed finish.
JLo: Um…I love the way you sounded, especially at the end. I’m just not sure that that was the best advice that Jimmy gave you. I want you to come out and have that big moment every single time.
Randy: I’m not sure that it’s that great of a song and I’m sure that you could have thought of other things. I always think about you going the Joss Stone way. A good thing about tonight is you’ve got another song later.
Steven: I think you put all of Haley, your range, into it. I don’t know if the song…for yourself, you took a song you didn’t know and made it work. I think you are just one perfect song away from being American Idol.
At the conclusion of Round 1, three contestants (James, Lauren and Scotty) have received the “in it to win it” accolade. What will happen with Jacob and Haley during Round 2?
ROUND 2: THEN (somewhere back in the sixties.)
In this compilation of the mentoring sessions for the second round, we discover that James is having an emotionally hard time singing his song as it reminds him of the few visits from his fiancée and son and having to say good-bye to them. They worry that he won’t be able to hold his emotions in check while he is in performance. With Jacob, they make him love his song when Sheryl sings it soft and sweetly. Jimmy tells Lauren that even though this is a mature song, she has to put herself into it. He tells Scotty to always be true to himself and not compete with the others. Sheryl can’t wait for Scotty to move to Nashville. She hopes to horn in on his career. Sheryl suggests to Haley that she start her song acappella so that the audience will be shocked when it goes full force.
James Durbin: "Without You" Badfinger
With only a piano, James stands at the mic center stage and tries to hold in his emotions, but is not successful. It affects his pitch and the lyric line, though the rawness does leak out. The audience appreciates his connection to the song’s words.
Randy: Yo, as Steven and Jennifer will attest to, this is a mark of truly a great performer. I could feel your emotion. The performance wasn’t perfect, but it was emotionally perfect. Right now, this competition is yours to lose.
Steven: When you sing as good as you do and you can let a song get the best of you, that’s crazy time; that’s a beautiful thing.
JLo: Everyone knows you can sing. You have the heart and soul to back it up. You are an artist.
Jacob Lusk: "Love Hurts" The Everly Brothers (Boudleaux Bryant)
To emphasize the softer side of this song, harp strings open the performance. Singing with just the harp, he does go soft and sweet, but then he throws everything but the kitchen sink at it, including singers, a brass band and pitchy screams. If only he could have continued how he began.
Steven: I’m a sucker for passion and I felt it again. You kinda got lost in the song, but what a delivery, what a beautiful thing.
JLo: The truth is…you bring out all the tricks at the end – you really brought it home.
Randy: This is what’s good about nights like tonight. You redeemed yourself with this song; very nice, congrats.
Lauren Alaina: “Unchained Melody” The Righteous Brothers (Alex North and Hy Zaret)
Lauren does put herself into this song, but lacks the understanding of its power. What she puts in is a slice of country that doesn’t translate well when dealing with an icon. At least she stayed with a piano and strings and left the guitars off the stage. Her reach for one note fell flat and she didn’t even try for the second.
JLo: That was a beautiful song; sung beautifully by you.
Randy: We saw two sides of you tonight. You can sing like a bird and that’s what you proved; very tender moment.
Steven: Your voice, your singing is so ripe, it’s so there. I loved that song, it was perfect. There’s nothing to judge.
Scotty McCreary: "Always on My Mind" Brenda Lee (Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson Thompson) probably the Elvis Presley version
Did the piano player forget how to use the soft pedal? There were times when Scotty went soft and low you couldn’t even hear him. Anyway…another change of pace from first set to second set as we saw with James and Lauren. He sits on some steps and sends the song without too much country interpretation out to the audience. He brings up the tempo with added background music, but ends with the piano.
JLo (she takes Randy’s turn) I can’t wait because I want to say that between the last song and this song, you show what a well rounded artist you are. That you can sing anything; just so beautiful. You are so comfortable in your own skin – just a true performer.
Randy: We call you our youngest veteran, if that makes any sense…it just means, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” When you speak quietly and you do the simplest things, they get the loudest reaction. I love it, dude.
Steven: America loves your voice, man, and you’ve just been taking us up and down the trail. I love it. I think we’re going to make it hard for America to vote this year on Idol because everybody’s been so good tonight. I cannot pick that apart. That was a beautiful rendition of that song.
Ryan brings up the top 24 pick when Scotty told JLo that he was a quarter Puerto Rican by pointing out Scotty’s 100% Puerto Rican grandmother, Pepita in the audience.
Haley Reinhart: “House of the Rising Sun” The Animals (possibly a 16th Century English folk song)
Haley takes Sheryl’s advice and begins acappella. When she lets loose, though, she really lets loose and KILLS IT! This song has more recently been associated with the New Orleans sound and her growls and jazzy blues style suits it perfectly. The stage gets the rolling fog treatment – why I don’t know unless it is to evoke a murky cityscape. The judges stand and join the audience in rousing applause.
Randy: What I love about this show is every week somebody has been coming out slaying it like they really want to win this. The award for the best performance of the night goes to HALEY! (She looks stunned.)
Steven: Sweet and sour, raspy, I could really relate to that – that really sells a song and I think you sold everybody tonight.
JLo: I don’t know if you came out a little angry at us from before, but that was the emotion in the beginning, “I don’t care, I’m going to sing my butt off, anyway.” That has never been sung like this before; great job.
At the end of Round Two every one, except possibly Jacob – it was hard to tell - received the accolade of “In it to win IT!”
Who could possibly go home? Read MsFroggy’s recap for that answer and a review of JLo’s performance. Oh, Lady Antebellum will also be in the house. Have fun pop and country fans.