The theme on "American Idol" on Wednesday night was "I'm With the Band," and Keith Urban predicted that the presence onstage of Rickey Minor and his fellow musicians would make many of the Top 9 contestants more comfortable. "I think some of them are really going to step up tonight," he said as the show kicked off.
The performances would prove Urban to have been prescient, by and large, but what the "Idol" judge probably hadn't foreseen was that the evening would also include the pilfering of Ryan Seacrest's shoe by Harry Connick Jr. – not to mention Seacrest hopping around the stage barefoot and, eventually, requesting the services of Jennifer Lopez's pedicurist in a joking, roundabout sort of way.
Nor, I'm guessing, would Urban have imagined that we would all be treated to slo-mo footage of Connick and Lopez hungrily ripping into a giant purple gummy bear with their teeth, despite the fact that Urban himself had presented Connick with the ultra-large ursine candy; or that Lopez would get big-time bleeped, presumably for swearing under her breath as Connick badgered her to do a "hair flip"; or the other antics that made Wednesday's show seem a bit more high-spirited and sassy than usual.
The contestants weren't the only ones to get more comfortable and looser on band night. The evening also brought a brief (non-musical) appearance by Fall Out Boy members Patrick Stump and Pete Wentz and some stronger-than-usual performances by the Top 9 themselves:
Alex Preston did his usual artistic thing with No Doubt's "Don't Speak," likely pleasing those who like his usual artistic thing (me, for instance), but alas, not the judges. Urban said Preston's rendition wasn't his "cup of tea" and expressed a desire for Preston to grab him with a little more "edge." Lopez said Preston's chill take had "kind of sucked the energy out of the song." Connick wanted him to move around and engage the audience a little more.
Majesty Rose saw a return to form after a few rough weeks, grabbing attention with her energetic performance of "Shake It Out" by Florence + the Machine. "That's the Majesty I love … that I miss," Lopez said, adding that, while she felt it was vocally "a little bit all over the place," in terms of performance "for me it was a 10" -- "comfortable," "centered" and "in control." Connick said he liked the performance, but urged her to work toward owning the stage more. Urban, meanwhile, wanted to see Rose become more grounded.
Urban clearly got into Dexter Roberts' performance of Little Big Town's "Boondocks" but the word that popped into my head as Roberts sang was "generic." Funny enough, Connick used that very word to describe it and suggested he stop choosing "giant anthem-like songs" unless he planned to do something different with them. Urban told Roberts he could see him having a hit with the song, but urged him to show another side of himself in future, "something we haven't seen yet." Lopez agreed it might be nice to see "something else," but added that she thought Roberts had done "a great job."
The judges were more excited about Malaya Watson's vocally circuitous rendition of the Beatles' "The Long & Winding Road." "Gosh, that was beautiful, baby," Urban gushed, saying she'd shown off her voice and her spirit. Lopez told Watson that her voice stood out above the others, reminding her of "a young Michael Jackson." Connick gave her the "award for most consistently improving" and urged her to work on her craft and worry about stardom later.
Sam Woolf gave a somewhat less uncomfortable performance than usual, singing the Plain White T's "Hey There Delilah" without doing anything substantially different with it, though Connick thought the "stripped-down arrangement" had been impressively original. Lopez thought the song was perfect for Woolf, but wondered who he was singing it to, telling him he needed to connect with a song emotionally to take it to the next level. Urban also suggested that Woolf "loosen the edges" of his notes to make them more conversational. And when Seacrest re-posed Lopez's question about Woolf's Delilah, the young contestant looked especially uneasy. "My grandma?" he responded.
Jessica Meuse took on the Fleetwood Mac song "Rhiannon" and sounded a lot like Stevie Nicks, though her pitch was more precise at the bottom of her range than at the top. Connick said she'd done a "nice job" showing a "slightly different side" of herself, calling it his favorite of Meuse's performances so far. Urban told Meuse she looked "very comfortable" in her clothes, but should get more comfortable moving around onstage without an instrument. Lopez detected a growing confidence, better connection with the audience and "lightness" in Meuse's face, but said she had to work on making the audience "feel something."
CJ Harris looked more appealing than he sounded on the SteelDrivers' "If It Hadn't Been for Love." Urban advised him not to "confuse the sound of expressing" his emotions "with the feeling of expressing" them. Lopez found the performance of uneven quality but said she "never got tired of hearing" Harris' voice. Connick advised him to keep working on his pitch.
Caleb Johnson turned in what was arguably the performance of the night, a rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Dazed & Confused" that got Lopez bouncing in her chair and earned a standing ovation from Lopez and Urban. "That's my papi right there," Lopez declared, labeling Johnson's performance "sexy." "You want to be the frontman of a rock band, you have to have that" sexiness, she said. "You have that." Connick was equally effusive. "I just don't know how you could have sung that tune any better," he said. Urban called Johnson's turn onstage "killer," "like an airbag in slow motion," and said he'd pulled a better performance out of the band. "Tonight's theme is 'I'm With the Band,'" he said, "but you're such a good frontman, it's like the band was saying, I'm with the singer."
In the last performance of the night, Jena Irene brought life and lush vocals to Evanescence's "Bring Me to Life." Connick loved it, telling her she'd more than held her own after Johnson's performance and complimenting her on the "wave of nice familiarity" he felt when he heard her voice, which he could imagine hearing on the radio. "Really, really strong," he said. "Every time … you just deliver," Urban said. Lopez called Irene's voice "phenomenal" and "soothing," but thought she could make her performance "more messy."
Though there were no dramatic stumbles this week, I'd put CJ Harris, Sam Woolf and Dexter Roberts in the bottom three, with Harris, perhaps, going home. Who do you think is in danger this week?
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