The Top 6 finalists on "American Idol" got to perform two solo songs each for the first time in Season 13 during Wednesday night's performance show in what can only be called a "Donnie & Marie" reboot -- with perhaps a little less cheese and saccharine. You know, a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n roll? (To explain: The Top 6 theme: "Rock 'n Roll/Country.") Anyway, it was an eye-opener from the beginning, not just in there being good and great performances but also in that there were sub-par performances, including one that might seal a finalist's fate and see him -- not her -- eliminated on Thursday's results show.
Michael Slezak at TVLine (via Yahoo TV) recapped the show April 23, finding it a pretty good show overall. He even thought Sam Woolf's Shania Twain cover "sounded good to [his] ears." And although the reviewer might have been just a bit too generous in that regard, he was still spot-on when he called for all all-guy bottom two for the voting results show. (Not at all difficult when evaluating the show in its entirety. You'll see...)
As for the "Idol" judges, Keith Urban stayed on his "loosen up," "release" critique kick for another week, so much so that Harry Connick Jr. got up and started giving him a shoulder massage. He also got his first real "boo" of the season (because his first was prompted by fellow judge, the much-booed Harsh Harry). Jennifer Lopez, in her critique of Jena Irene, inadvertently predicted the Wild Card finalist would be in the finale. And all judges posed for a selfie and did a grumpy face with Grumpy Cat, the #realGrumpyCat (viewers were told at the bottom of the television screen) of Internet fame. Ah, adults letting out their inner children -- adorable. And a bit odd.
And then there was host Ryan Seacrest trying to plug an unheard of band called R5. Apparently he's debuting their first single on his radio show on Thursday morning. (Correction: Googling them, one finds that they're four guys and one girl, with three of the guys and the girl being siblings. The fourth guy is from a dance crew formed in 2009 with the aforementioned three brothers -- and one unmentioned -- who performed on Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance." One of the boys, Ross Lynch, stars as Austin on Disney's "Austin & Ally" and his brother, Riker, is one of the Warblers on Fox's hit "Glee." So they're not quite "unheard of." Oh, and the single is technically their first off their second studio album. So...)
But on to the show...
The Top 6 were charged with performing a rock song and a country song for everyone's entertainment. So how did they do?
Jena Irene. For her rock performance, Jena went old school hard rock with Heart's "Barracuda." She leant the galloping rhythm of the song a haunting power with her vocals. As Judge Keith noted that she had set the bar high for the rest of the show (she performed first), Judge J-Lo said she would make it to the finale, and Judge Harry wanted to hear her perform "Barracuda" again for her country entry. Jena also performed tenth, choosing Carrie Underwood's meandering "So Small" and doing so some vocal meandering herself. It was a great exercise in vocal control but Harry didn't care for it. (He also noted that with her other performance, he didn't think it mattered.)
Sam Woolf. Following Jena Irene has to be intimidating these past few weeks, so the single-faceted Sam jumped right into the Imagine Dragons' hit "It's Time." Probably a bit better than usual but Sam's a long way from hitting his song's out of the park. Still, the producers labeled him the "heartthrob" in their little nickname preface for the show and they're definitely trying to sell the shy kid as one. Sam also started off the second half of the show, singing Shania Twain's country-pop hit "You're Still The One." A boring, nasally song by one of country music's most beautiful singers, it's a cold, dead offering by the boy who does not emote. Bad song choice, poor rendition. And the most shocking thing of all was that the judges didn't call him on his high school talent show performance -- but at least they didn't give him glowing reviews like we're used to hearing even when he's done nothing better than a competent shower singer.
C. J. Harris. Trying to channel a bit of Lenny Kravitz, C. J. was third in line with "American Woman," the old Guess Who classic revamped by the aforementioned Kravitz just a few years ago. He does a passable job, but Judge Keith thinks he needs to get in touch with the attitude of the song. For his country performance (eleventh in line), the Alabama singer completely dropped the musical ball. Even Judge Jennifer called him out on song choice (Zac Brown Band's "Whatever It Is"). Not a powerful tune in the least, C. J. just didn't seem all that into it. And, so, neither was anyone else. The judges admonished him for picking such a mid-range song and pointed to his fellow finalists' choices, which were geared toward power, showcasing their range, and generally upbeat.
Alex Preston. Here's a guy constantly lauded for his vocal stylings and his cool musical arrangements. So you just knew when he went off the tracks, it would be memorable. And so it went with his selection of Neon Trees' "Animal." A little more rock than we're used to from Alex and it is evident he's out of his element. He's breathy, the lyrics seem forced and run-on, jumbled even. One has to wonder how many viewers were nodding their heads when Judge Harry said the finalist sound out of breath. But Alex found redemption in his country choice, performing Willie Nelson's "Always On My Mind." With a jazzy arrangement, the more familiar Alex and his Paul Simon-esque vocal downturns was back on stage. Only Judge Keith didn't care for it. Judge Jennifer said she liked the way he'd reworked the song, unlike how she felt with his rearranging of The Police's "Every Breath You Take."
Caleb Johnson. The Top 6's resident rocker was ready to roll when he got his chance, belting out The Black Crowes' "Sting Me" like his life depended on it. Halfway through the number, though, while dragging his mike stand toward a break in the alley between the back-up band and singers, he tripped and went down -- chasing a runaway microphone that had flipped over his shoulder and was rolling quickly away from him. Without missing a beat, he grabbed the errant mike, jumped up and started wailing again. A quick camera shot of the judges panel showed J-Lo and Keith roaring with laughter and clapping. He ended the performance by crawling up to the feet of one of the back-up singers. Afterward, the audience roared for quite some time and Caleb received kudos all around for the fall and the save. Judge J-Lo acknowledged that he had had "a moment." For his second song, Caleb performed Carrie Underwood's "Undo It." More rock than country, Judge Keith, after Harry and Jennifer applauded the performance (noting that it still wasn't as good as the first), had only one thing to say: He looked forward to Caleb's country performance later (which leaves one wondering if that was just a swipe at the performance as not being country enough or at the song in general -- you know how country purists can be).
Jessica Meuse. Jessica was the only Top 6 finalist to sing in the same spot for both genres on Wednesday's show (sixth and twelfth). For her rock number, she nailed the Jefferson Airplane classic "Somebody To Love," sounding every bit like Grace Slick. The judges loved it (but Keith Urban wanted more) and Harry told her that she seemed to be finally connecting internally with the music. For her country cover, Dolly Parton's classic "Jolene" was chosen. With an loping electric-guitar driven rhythm (dark and somewhat reminiscent of The Outlaws' "Ghost Riders In The Sky"), she captured the melodrama of a woman pleading with another not to steal her man. Judge Harry Connick Jr again praised her connection and J-Lo lauded her vocals. Keith flat-out stated he hated the musical arrangement (because he loved Dolly Parton's) although the vocals were fantastic.
So there you have: Twelve performances. Two from each finalist. So who will America most likely send home this week?
If the results show continues announcing a bottom two, there doesn't seem to be any way that that Sam Woolf and C. J. Harris escape its magnetism. Sam was his usual dreary, producer-annointed heartthrob self. (Read: Adequate for a coffee shop or karaoke bar but no real stage presence.) C. J. may have actually torpedoes his own chances of making the Top 5 with his country song choice and performance, something one would have thought he would have nailed given his country-blues roots. The cover really was that bad. Both C. J. and Sam have been in the bottom three times this season. (Sam might have been in more but since being Saved from elimination by the judges in the first Top 7 sing-off, there has only been a bottom two.)
Alex Preston's Neon Trees cover was far less -- far, far less -- than impressive, and if his Willie Nelson cover didn't connect with voters, he could be a surprising bottom-dweller for the first time this season. Regardless, he most likely won't go home. Jessica Meuse, who was in the bottom for the first time last week, shouldn't have a problem after her two excellent performances this week.
Of course, Caleb Johnson and Jena Irene have nothing to worry about. Or they shouldn't. (Sometimes you never know about that fickle beast, the voting viewership of "American Idol.") They had the two of the best performances of the night with her "Barracuda" and his "Sting Me."
If it comes down to Sam and C. J., C. J. will most likely go home, although Sam is the weaker of the two performance-wise. Sam is Season 13's Tim Urban (Season 9) or John Stevens (Season 3), if you will. (No, nobody's been as undeserving as Sanjaya Malakar from Season 6.) He shouldn't have made it this far but with editing and the "Idol" voting system, not to mention being pimped as a "heartthrob" by the producers and being handled with kid gloves by the judges, he's now on the home stretch. We can only hope America has had enough.
The "American Idol" Top 6 results show airs on Fox Television on Thursday at 9 p.m. (EST).