"American Idol" went back to where it all began this week with the Top 8 finalists reprising their audition songs. And given the time they've had on the show, not to mention all that in-it-to-win-it mentoring from Randy Jackson, it can honestly be claimed that the contestants have improved since trying out before the judges and impressing them enough to get that gold ticket to Hollywood. But have they improved enough to keep going toward the finale -- or at least enough to impress the voting viewers?
Or was their improvement a byproduct of having a real band add some ambience to their vocals?
Whatever, Wednesday night's performance episode was probably the best show of the season, musically speaking. And as Lyndsey Parker at Yahoo Music recapped April 3, it was historic in that it saw two original songs performed by the finalists that wrote them (in a single episode). Nobody stumbled, nobody hit a flat note, nobody forgot the lyrics, or missed their intro, or had the band come in at the wrong time.
Still, apparently the producers thought it a good idea to let the audience get to know the Top 8 finalists as people, so they not only went "Back To The Start" for the theme. They also brought out the finalists to talk about how they got there, sometimes literally (as in cars that barely made it or were pulled over by police) or and sometimes figuratively (always wanted to be there -- the passion), then showed video clips of proud parents and grandparents talking about them, interspersed with photos and homemade videos of each finalist as a child.
But on with the Top 8 performances:
Jessica Meuse hit the stage first, pulling the unfortunate "dead spot," the forgettable position. But she made the most of it, singing her self-penned "Blue-eyed Lie," a powerful pop-blues tune that could very well be a radio hit. Although not as haunting as her audition version, her performance showcased the power of her voice. And she set the performance bar so high, she didn't have to worry about being in the "dead spot."
Next up, C. J. Harris put an angsty twist on the Allman Brothers Band's "Soulshine," a song he had promised his dad he would perform on "Idol" if he ever got there. (And now he's done it twice!) Judge Harry Connick Jr. congratulated him on working on his pitch problems a Jennifer Lopez talked about how he drew her in (and seemed to make her cry, although she didn't admit to it).
This week marked the firts time duets were performed. But did the producers listen to the live audience's request for a Caleb Johnson and Irene Jena combo (after they ended the Top 9 performance episode with a one-two-hard-rock-punch last week). Instead, Jena Irene was paired with Alex Preston for a nicely harmonized rendition of Pink's "Just Give Me A Reason." One might not think that Jena's power and Alex's stylings would be a good match, but one would be wrong. (Good news: The duets are not judged. Well, okay, bad news for those who do a great job, like Jena and Alex.)
Third: Sam Woolf perhaps delivered the worst performance of the night. Not that it was bad; it was not. But young Sam's "Lego House" (Ed Sheeran) simply didn't have the power of the other songs performed. And he just doesn't have the stage presence to pull off such a laid-back number. Yet. He does seem to be less shy and awkward than when he first auditioned, and if he listens to Judge Harry (who told him to pick a girl in the audience, make eye contact, and sing to her), he'll improve markedly (because dude's eyes just won't stay still).
Caleb Johnson and Jessic Meuse performed the second duet of the night. Jessica's sultry darkness burst its bounds and climbed to new heights as she matched Caleb's powerful vocals note for note. They covered Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks' "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," nailing it.
The fourth performer of the night was Malaya Watson. And Malaya just might have had her best performance of the season with Aretha Franklin's "Ain't No Way." The excitable high school tuba playing teen has been on a roll since crashing with Bruno Mars' "Runaway Baby" a few weeks back. She showed total control doing Aretha's song and could have had the best performance of the night if it hadn't been for one singer.
Dexter Roberts was up next, and, no, he wasn't the one that performed better than Malaya. However, Dexter did a nice reprise of Brett Eldridge's "One Mississippi." He won over the judges with his twangy audition but his full-noted version sounded lots better. Speaking of being on a roll, he's been redeeming himself since his couple of so-so performances a few weeks back.
Malaya Watson and Sam Woolf paired up for "Lucky" by Colbie Caillat and Jason Mraz. Malaya was all flirtsy-cutesy, while Sam was all stiffsy-uh, he was just stiff. The singing was good, but Sam needs to lighten up. Putting the two teens together was a good move, but it would have worked far better if Sam had looked just a little less like the Tin Man in need of a little oil.
But back to the finalists on a roll. Malaya's excellent cover of Aretha was only topped by Jena Irene's killer rendition of Adele's "Rolling In The Deep." Not only did Jena make the song her own, giving it a different rhythm, she made it work. And that haunting note she hits is simply a winner. Jennifer Lopez told her she needed to come out and do her performances like she had to blow everybody away. Judge Jenny should pay a little more attention: Jena Irene is blowing away her competition. She hasn't had a misstep since she came back into the competition as a Wild Card and it is paying off. (According to professional oddsmakers, she's now the finalist to beat.)
C. J. Harris and Dexter Roberts paired up for the final duet of the night, singing Darius Rucker's "Alright." And that's exactly what it was: Alright. The two Alabama boys seemed to have a good time singing the song but it just adequate, good enough for a filler. A better song for the guys would have been Rucker's "Southern State of Mind" or maybe a song by the quintessential Alabama band -- Alabama.
Caleb Johson pulled the next-to-last spot again. He rocked a very, very hard-but-bluesy "Chain of Fools" (also by Aretha Franklin). The boy has chops and he belted it like a pro, but Judge Harry told him again that we all know he can belt one, but he wants to hear something softer. And Harry might have a point, given that a rocker has won "American Idol" only once (Season 7's David Cook). But Caleb has yet to place in the bottom, so coming out of his wheelhouse might not be his best move.
Alex Preston ended the night with a bluesy rendition of his own song "Fairytales." A totally engaging number, the song showcased his vocal stylings as well as the nice rhythm. Alex knows what he's doing and his performance showed it. Definitely one of the better performances of the night.
As mentioned earlier, there were no stumbles or flat notes during the show, no pitchiness or forgetfulness, no misstimings by either the band or the finalist. All in all, it was a sound show (pun intended). So if the "Idol" judges are going to use their one and only seasonal Save, and they have to by the time the Top 6 becomes the Top 5, this would be the opportune time to do it.
But if they don't, this is how it should shake out:
The bottom three should be: Malaya Watson, simply because she isn't connecting with voters. C. J. Harris, because of all the performances his, along with Sam Woolf's may have been the weakest. And the aforementioned, Sam Woolf, whose vocal range seems to be in one octave and whose stage presence is exemplified by stiffness and shifty eyes.
Who will go home? If the Save isn't used, Sam Woolf will head back where he started.
"American Idol" returns Thursday night at 9 p.m. on Fox Television for the results reveal. Also on the results show: Daughtry will perform his hit song "Waiting For Superman."