Wednesday night’s installment of “American Idol” went back to the beginning, quite literally, for a night of Kelly Clarkson tunes. It’s a sign of how far the very first “Idol” winner has come when you can easily fill an evening of standout covers of hers, and it ended up being one of the strongest nights of “American Idol” I think we’ve seen this season. The cherry on top? Well, it has to do with who went home this week . I think I’ll quote a little Kelly for a moment to express my feelings about that, with some rather pertinent song lyrics I could croon about this week’s departing contestant:
“Since U been gone…
I can breathe for the first time.
I’m so movin’ on, yeah, yeah…
Thanks to you, now I get what I want.”
Perhaps that’s a bit excessive and harsh, and also a huge spoiler (but who reads my recaps to find out who was eliminated, anyhow?), but yes. Suffice it to say for now that this week was much, much better than last week’s up-and-down 80s Night. Let’s head right to it!
- Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard sadly won’t be seeing a night of “Idol” performances devoted to his catalog anytime soon, but he at least got to hand over the official results envelope to Ryan Seacrest. That’s at least something, I suppose. (I just thought, however…last week David Hasselhoff, who we shall try not to speak of more, had the envelope, and they gave him a chance to ‘sing.’ Yet Ruben did it this week, can actually sing, and they gave him no such performance slot. Sigh. The logic of the “Idol” producers sometimes.)
- They announced a new twist this week…the Bottom 2 would be officially announced, and then one of them saved by fans on Twitter…the “Idol Fan Save.” My reaction in the notes was succinct: “Whaaat?”
- Nick Fradiani, “Catch My Breath”: Nick noted in the rehearsal video that he had done an acoustic cover of this song before, and his performance/arrangement was kind of based on that. Kelly Clarkson herself (who was a terrific mentor, by the way) noted this one of her bigger songs, and counseled Nick to open his eyes. He started off in his lower range, which I thought was both a strength and a weakness for him. He was up and down throughout that part. He did sound like the song was a bit too big for him at certain points, like he was out of breath perhaps, but he did seem to own the performance more than he does in the past, and letting go more than he has. His tone still isn’t quite working for me…it’s just kind of grating at points, and I don’t know what Nick could do to change that. With the renewed level of commitment Nick showed, his pitch kind of went a bit south, but I thought he improved in a few key ways. I think Harry was rather on the nose afterwards noting that he looked more comfortable on stage, even if it wasn’t his favorite vocal. I’m glad Nick is taking notice of the things he needs to work on, and I did see a good amount of improvement, but he still remains in my bottom tier of the contestants still left, and he’ll need to break out of there soon if he wants to take it all the way.
- Jax, “Beautiful Disaster”: For quite a few of this season’s performances, Jax has started off on the piano, and given us an absolutely entrancing vocal…after which she typically proceeds to rock things out with the full band, leaving us wanting more. It’s not that she can’t rock things out beautifully, but there’s something special that happens when she goes completely acoustic. She wisely chose to do so this week with “Beautiful Disaster,” and the result was absolutely gorgeous. I can see why Kelly had no notes to give Jax…her distinctive tone was wonderfully showcased (a tiny bit too breathy at points, but nothing too distracting), and the whole thing was stunning. Just Jax, a piano (not played by her this time, in fact), and a cello. That’s the stuff “Idol” dreams are made of, folks. I’d have to say this was my favorite of Jax’s performances so far, and that’s saying something. The judges were similarly on board, though J.Lo oddly thought the arrangement was a bit static. I thought it had a lovely rise and fall myself, so I don’t know what she was going on about, but yeah. Jax is doing quite well for herself lately. Let’s keep it up.
- Oh, “Idol,” you keep trying to make these group performances happen. (For 14 seasons now.) They’re not going to happen. Singing perhaps 10% live, the Top 9 performed “People Like Us,” which was a previously unreleased song off Kelly’s Greatest Hits album. Even though the harmonies were completely and utterly processed/pre-recorded, the whole thing didn’t sound too bad at all…but what is the point of these things, honestly?
- Tyanna Jones, “Mr. Know It All”: Continuing the female trend (there’s only 3 girls left, y’all), Tyanna was next, and Kelly was very impressed with her loud, booming voice. She advised her to act more “pissed off” while performing and really bring in the emotion, and Tyanna took the chance to explain why she picked “Mr. Know It All” in the first place…she was bullied in the past, and wanted to take the chance to give a message of self-empowerment. (Amen, girl.) Now did that all come off well in the performance? I think in the first half, Tyanna didn’t really convey any of that…she seemed a little static. However, when she left the mic stand and took over more of the stage, her emotional connection level really skyrocketed, and she seemed to be much more engaged. Her vocals were strong, as usual. Her voice can handle big songs like this. I just wish it wouldn’t have taken until the second half for things to really take off. The judges were encouraging and complimentary, which I think was in order. I worry, though, that Tyanna is getting too much inside her head. She really needs to just let it shine these next few weeks. (I refuse to say that her time with us will be any less than that.)
- Who knew Gordon Ramsay actually smiles and laughs? Also, more “Idol” alum sightings (all from seasons I didn’t watch, but whatever) in the audience, from Ruben again, Vonzell Solomon from Season 4 (Carrie’s season), and Season 12 champ Candice Glover (whose songs I have heard on YouTube, and man, does that woman have an INCREDIBLE voice).
- Joey Cook, “Miss Independent”: Joey very much needed a rebound this week, and she certainly rose to the occasion. I was grateful the viewers gave her a pass on last week’s misstep…after all, like Kelly told Joey, we all have our good and bad days. Speaking of Kelly, she was rather floored by Joey’s new take on her old hit “Miss Independent,” and for good reason. Joey did an incredible job reworking the song and performing the heck out of the whole thing. She was cool, but confident, and really kept the lyrical message shining through. Her vocal was incredibly strong, one of her best of the season. This is the Joey we know and love. The judges were quite impressed, though Harry took the time to get on his soapbox a bit related to jazz music today:
“Jazz is as modern as any other kind of music […] It’s OK to sing jazz without going back 50 years.”
- Now, I’m quite on board with that sentiment. The whole “jazz equals the 20s” mindset, I’m not terribly a fan of either. That said, I’m not sure that dinging Joey on that was quite the best move or the most appropriate venue to express that viewpoint…it wasn’t quite fair to her, especially after giving such an outstanding performance, and giving jazz the spotlight, on “American Idol,” no less. Nevertheless, Joey agreed wholeheartedly with his critique, and regardless of the circumstance in which it was said, I’m glad in the end that Harry took the time to highlight the relevance of jazz music today. On that front, I would say, preach it, Harry! Also, Joey is my favorite. Yes, I just said it.
- Kelly Clarkson. “Heartbeat Song.” She nailed it live, because it’s Kelly Clarkson and she has a terrific voice and a natural gift for performing. (I mean, she didn’t win that one “American Idol” show all those years ago for nothing.) I will never tire of hearing/watching her.
- Quentin Alexander, “Dark Side”: Last week, Harry suggested Quentin try a little more uptempo stuff in the future, and while this choice cut from Kelly’s “Stronger” album is still most decidedly a ballad, it is a bit more driving than some of Quentin’s previous song choices, so I guess we’re making progress on that front. As far as the performance goes? He stepped it up very nicely in the vocals. It was strong and confident, and I really enjoyed it. J.Lo had us thinking she was going for a Paula Abdul moment for a second when she said she was glad that they “saved” Quentin…then clarified that she was referring to him being a Wild Card pick, not that she was confusing him with Qaasim, the Judges’ Save two weeks back. Whew. Harry came down a little hard on Quentin and advised him to work on the technical aspects of his performance. That advice can’t hurt, I suppose. Quentin is doing quite well already, but he still has even more room for improvement, and continuing to work on his pitch and vocal technique will add even more to his ever-growing arsenal, I think. (Then again, Kelly Clarkson said she wants to “make sweet love to those amazing eyes,” so perhaps Quentin may not need too much more in his arsenal. Also, Kelly Clarkson should be on every TV show ever, I’ve decided.)
- Qaasim Middleton, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”: Qaasim went stripped down this week, focusing even more than he has previously on his vocals. I thought there were some really good vocal moments in there, but admittedly, a lot of really shaky ones as well. I thought his energy came through great, despite any setbacks in his voice, and that the arrangement was terrific. (I particularly loved the call-and-response part at the end.) Keith rightly pointed out that the transitions and the chorus were a bit rough, and both Harry and J.Lo pointed out that he needed more practice with his runs (Harry using the jazz term “shedding” like the boss that he is). Qaasim himself said this wasn’t his best. I’m not sure this will be enough to carry him through past next week, but the kid has energy in spades, and while the field is so stacked right now that I’m not sure I can get too attached to him anymore, I wouldn’t mind seeing him stick around at least a week longer. He hasn’t overstayed his welcome with me just yet.
- Kelly Clarkson returned to the stage to sing “At Last,” which was her audition song as well. Not being a viewer of “Idol” in that very first season (or, if we’re being technical, for the 6 seasons that followed either), it was great to see her first moment with the judges, and then to see her nail the song yet again all these 13 years later. Even more impressive was that she apparently did it without being able to hear herself properly through her in-ear monitor. OK, Kelly, just start showing off, no problem. Starstruck Harry Connick, Jr. got to meet her for the first time after the performance, and said his daughters would be quite jealous, prompting to her to throw him this hilarious response: “Why didn’t you bring them? You’re kind of a crap dad!” She was kidding, folks. Also, give her a sitcom deal or something, please. She’s a real keeper.
- Clark Beckham, “The Trouble With Love Is”: Our last guaranteed safe performer of the night, and kind of a no-brainer after last week’s stunning “Every Breath You Take.” I feel Clark continued his momentum nicely this week, tearing into the soul elements of “The Trouble With Love Is” with panache. Kelly advised him to let go and connect, and focus on his vulnerability. (She also said, “I think I’m pregnant!” after he sang in rehearsal, but that’s a whole other story.) I don’t know if Clark quite showcased an emotional connection, and that’s something he still needs to work on, at least in his facial expressions, but but he had a very solid vocal, and as I put it in my notes, “really took it to church at the end.” And that’s enough for now. Still, wake up your face and your energy a little, Clark. It will take you from ‘great’ to ‘star’ in no time.
- That meant our Bottom 2 this week consisted of Daniel (hallelujah!) and Rayvon (hmmph). My reaction at the time? “Please say Daniel’s Twitter fans have gone to bed…”
- Daniel Seavey, “Breakaway”: Ouch, Daniel had laryngitis this week. That’s got to be rough for anyone. I liked how Kelly gave him some vocal warmups to do, like the lip bubble (that’s always a good one), but in the end…yeah. It was shaky vocally, as always. Daniel couldn’t really stay on the notes very well. It had to be tough with laryngitis, and I feel for him there. I was about to say in my notes that he wasn’t terrible, per se, on the big parts of the song, but then came that glory note at the end that was anything but glorious. Yeah. This wasn’t quite a performance worthy of saving, I’d have to say. The judges, while gentle, seemed to agree.
- Ravyon Owen, “Since U Been Gone”: I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by Rayvon the past few weeks, as much as I love him. That changed Wednesday night. I loved the strings that started it all out, and it was a great, gorgeous arrangement in general. More importantly, though, Rayvon gave a really, really powerful vocal. He connected beautifully to the song, flipping it from power-pop to a ballad, and while this is far from the first song I would change to a downtempo ballad (it’s pretty darn catchy in its original form), he sold it so well that I didn’t really mind the shift at all. I love where he took us, and I honestly got a few chills. It’s the same high level of vocal artistry that he’s been giving us, and the same general vibe, but he just seemed much more in command this week. It moved me, and that’s something I haven’t always been able to say about Rayvon in the competition thus far. Not everyone agreed, however. Harry asked, “Where is your gravy?,” feeling like he lacks something still, and J.Lo counseled him to keep digging and keep pushing. Keith, though, is who I stand with, when he said that this was one of Rayvon’s best turns on the “Idol” stage.
- Then came a 5-minute window for fans to vote on Twitter to save either Rayvon or Daniel. Being a West Coast viewer, I was unable to vote, so I had to leave it all in the hands of the East/Central time zones. Shudder. The clock ticked and tocked, the commercial break came and went, and I was steeling myself for the possibility of defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory (AKA Daniel triumphing over Rayvon, when we had come so close to getting him out), and then…to my great surprise, Rayvon was saved by the Twitter vote! That meant Daniel Seavey headed home this week.
Partly because I don’t want to look like a cranky, mean little twit who picks on 15-year-olds, and partly because this recap is already late getting out and I’d like to finish already, I won’t spend too much time gloating about Daniel’s long-awaited elimination. I will point out my joy in having Rayvon stick around…I literally took up an entire page with my joyful reaction to Rayvon’s save in large, scrawling block letters (culminating in “We have conquered!,” suggesting I may be getting a bit too carried away sometimes). But yeah. I won’t dwell on what we don’t have anymore, but instead on what we do have…arguably one of the strongest groups of “Idol” finalists in the show’s history. I like everyone. EVERYONE. Granted, in the course of the past few weeks I’ve gained some favorites and some that I wouldn’t mind heading home, but I can say with a high degree of confidence that we will have quite a worthy winner this season, whoever it may be, and that’s something I haven’t been able to say (with no reservations, at least) about an “Idol” season ever. I’m very, very excited for the rest of the season now, and however it shakes out, I know it will be a treat. If you’re not watching already (and you’ve inexplicably read to the end of this recap), check it out…there’s no better time, now that all 8 finalists are top-notch, even though they’ve all had their bad days. To close it all off, my weekly ratings:
My favorites this week: Joey (!!!), Rayvon, Jax, Quentin, Clark, and Tyanna (don’t make me trim this down here…)
Step it up a bit: Qaasim and Nick.
Who may go home next week? I’d say Qaasim and Nick are in danger. It’s going to be a bit more painful now that we don’t have that one obvious weak link…
See you next week with another “Idol” recap, hopefully delivered with a bit more timeliness, and see you even sooner than that with great music here on Harmony Avenue. Thanks as always for reading! Respond away in the comment section below.