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'Rising Star' finale delivers: Show crowns first winner Jesse Kinch

Season 1 of ABC's "Rising Star" came to an end Sunday night in a live results finale that featured a bracket-style one-on-one playoff system among the remaining four finalists that, by show's end, produced a single winner (which was preordained by the the lack of an "s" at the end of the show's title). And given the popularity throughout the show, reflected in their elevated vote percentages, of Jesse Kinch and Austin French, it was no wonder that they made it to the finale sing-off. But who won?

First, let's take a look at how they got there. As Jodi Walker at Billboard recapped on Aug. 25, the show was downright entertaining, had a look of inevitability about it, but still delivered a solid performer with the potential to make hit music. And although it didn't seem to measure up to the hype of the previews, it was still an interesting real-time take on the singing competition reality show that will undoubtedly alter the genre -- not to mention other shows that depend on audience participation.

The night itself started with four finalists. The rules were simple: Two one-on-one song battles to deliver the two finalists that would sing one last time competitively for the title.

Dana Williams was paired up against Jesse Kinch. And although both would make great song choices for their particular singing styles, Dana's "At Last" cover of the immortal Etta James classic left one feeling that it had been done so many times before, and better. Jesse Kinch rocked out on Credence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" like he was a John Fogerty impersonator, bringing some energy into the room and firing up the audience. The atmosphere was contagious because the vote wasn't even a close one, with Dana pulling a mere 30 percent (she deserved better) while Jesse clocked a whopping 87 percent.

For the second bracket, Austin French performed "In Love With The Girl," battling Audrey Kate Geiger's "Love Me Like A Man." And it wasn't as if Austin's cover of Gavin DeGraw's song was great, it was most likely because he's a good looking guy that sings well. In lots of competitions, we see these guys rise even though their competition often seems to overshadow them technically and stylistically. Audrey Kate's rendition of Bonnie Raitt's "Love Me Like A Man" had her unique vocal nuance but it seemed to lack power and conviction. In the end, Austin French would take the win with 70 percent, while Audrey Kate would manage only a 49 percent rating.

And that set up the finale sing-off.

But host Josh Groban announced that there would be a few twists added for the final one-on-one challenge. Both artists would face the audience without the wall between them for the first time. And the audience at home would be voting blind. That is, there would be no voting progress bar highlighting the percentage total on the screen as was the usual way of things. After the performances, Josh would let America know who had been chosen as the first (and maybe last "Rising Star" winner).

After flipping a coin with both finalists faces on the sides, Austin won and decided to take the pimp spot (that is, he decided to sing last). A smart move, giving him a slight advantage, especially when his fans undoubtedly know they're up against Jesse Kinch, who has proven to rate high throughout the competition.

Jesse led off with The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me," a powerful song that showcased Jesse's booming voice well. There's little doubt that he scored well, no matter what his final rating might be. And now Austin French knows what he's up against.

Austin performs Rascal Flatts' "Bless The Broken Road" for his final song and does a great job. He's spot on throughout and you can easily forgive his constant pandering to the religious crowd throughout the competition (besides, it was unnecessary given his talent).

Performances over, the two guys met Josh Groban at center stage. Of course, he then asked the obligatory "who do you think won?" question asked of all judges at this point in all competitons. All three "Rising Star" judges made the "you're both winners" noises so Josh would get on with it.

And the winner... Jesse Kinch.

From the moment he first performed, it looked as if Jesse just might go all the way. And he did. In his typical laid-back retro style (much like his music), he thanked the right people, his family, and all the people that voted for him. Then he stepped into his final performance, nailing Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You."

Maybe he did.

No matter what you might think of searching-for-a-synaptic-relay-that-actually-works Kesha, one of the show's three professional judges (the other two being rapper Ludacris and country singer Brad Paisley), the idea behind ABC's "Rising Star" seemed unique and entertaining enough. Tie the singing competition into a working app where people could vote from home in real time to determine who stays or leaves based on their performances. Add in qualifiers such as a value that had to be reached to raise a wall (the "rising" part of the show, no less) separating the artists from the live audience and the fact that each judges vote counted as seven (why? Because they're professionals and know which vocalists are better than others -- even more than you, the couch-potato that buys the professionals' music).

It is difficult to say whether or not "Rising Star" will return for Season 2. It does have its merits and a few aspects could be altered or eliminated to make the show better. Like making certain Kesha's contract is not renewed. (Who needs critiques that sound Valium-laced and vapidly filled with the English language's two most overused "a" words -- awesome and amazing?) Keep Ludacris and Brad Paisley -- they're both honest, funny, and have insightful things to say about the artists. Take away a few points from the judges. (Say, two points each. That would leave them with five each, enough to make an impact but not so much as to take away a close vote from the public.) Keep the wall, take away the long and TMI-filled backstories that tend to influence votes, give a cursory bio and don't let the audience -- including those at home -- see the artist behind the wall for their first auditions (sort of like the Blind Auditions on "The Voice" but for all of the viewing voters). If they make it through, then go ahead and allow for backstories.

Regardless of its future, Season 1 of "Rising Star" is in the history books. Jesse Kinch was named the winner, not only of the inaugural title but also a recording contract. And while we're congratulating him on the win, let's hope he -- and any possible future winners of "Rising Star" -- fare along the lines of "American Idol" winners and not the other singing competitions, which have produced mostly what-happened-to list-makers without creating stars (with a few exceptions, of course, like Jackie Evancho, Fifth Harmony, Cassadee Pope, and Miranda Lambert).

For more information on "Rising Star," check out their official page at ABC's website.

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