The "American Idol" Top 8 took the stage to sing the songs they'd auditioned with on Wednesday night and showed how far they've come during what Ryan Seacrest likes to call their "'Idol' journey."
"I'm so proud of everyone tonight," Keith Urban said after the last singer had taken his turn. "You guys have stepped it up enormously."
It's true. Blanketed in the security of a familiar song, many of the singers displayed a new level of comfort and control, prompting Urban to spring to his feet repeatedly to bestow standing ovations. Uncharacteristically, Jennifer Lopez declined to rise from her chair to join her fellow judge, probably because the baby-doll dress she was wearing was dangerously short.
Even Harry Connick Jr. saw fit to offer an enthusiastic whistle to the occasional singer and rolled out more than a few of his "great job" kudos, as well at least one "fantastic job," and his highest praise of all: calling a performance "really, really strong."
Interspersed with duets of uneven quality (Jessica Meuse and Caleb Johnson on Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty's "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," remarkably good; Dexter Roberts and C.J. Harris on Darius Rucker's "Alright," not so much) as well as baby pictures and pre-performance video interviews with the contestants' families (I guess they're not doing a "birth year songs" theme this season?) the Top 8 turned in solo performances as follows:
Jessica Meuse, apparently a cranky baby, reprised her original song "Blue Eyed Lie," as well as the guitar-strumming shoulder twitch the judges had admired during her audition. With the band behind her she had a fuller sound.
Urban called it "a great start to the show" and said that, while her tone and ferocity reminded him of Grace Slick's, she had to work on moving her whole body. Her legs, he noted, were "dead still." Were her shoes her own? He wondered. "Did you borrow them? Are they Harry's shoes?" Lopez said she felt the original material had given her a better sense of Meuse and what sort of album she'd make, calling the performance "really perfect." Connick said he was reminded of "Cher from the '70s or Nancy Sinatra" and admired Meuse's cool presentation, saying he liked it even better the second time around. He also disagreed with Urban, contending that if the "intensity level is there," it's fine not to move much.
Before C.J. Harris took the stage to sing the Allman Brothers Band's "Soul Shine," we were reminded that during Harris' audition Lopez had observed that there were things he did "consistently wrong," but that those could be fixed. Judging from the duet Harris sang with Dexter Roberts, he still has a way to go, but his performance of "Soul Shine" was better than usual in terms of pitch and didn't lack for commitment.
Lopez said Harris had "felt it and we felt it," adding that the light shining from behind him, "didn't even have to be there" because something shines from him anyway "that just touches my heart." Connick called Harris' voice "special" and then gave him a lecture about "pitch, intonation, singing in tune." Urban said he'd "reined it in way better" than he had the first time around and had done a "good job."
Stepping out amidst a jumble of table and floor lamps (what, was the hotel down the street redecorating its lobby or something?), Sam Woolf sang Ed Sheeran's "Lego House," looking marginally less shy than he has in past weeks.
Connick told Woolf that his issue was not "confidence," but "connection," and advised him to just pick someone and smile at them when fans scream at him. "It will change your world, I promise you," Connick said. Urban said Woolf was "getting better" and "looser" every week. "It doesn't have to be perfect," he said. "It has to be soulful and there's no soul in perfection." Lopez said she'd gotten another "glimpse of the magic of Sam Woolf."
Malaya Watson earned a standing ovation from Urban with her smooth, powerful take on Aretha Franklin's "Ain't No Way," and may take the prize for the singer who has shown the most dramatic growth during the competition.
Urban told her she was "on fire" and complimented her on her control and restraint. Lopez said Watson had blossomed into a star "before our eyes" and that, while she was "still that same little crazy girl who walked in," she had "so much more control" and "poise." "You're going to be such a huge star," Lopez predicted. "You're going to run away with this competition." Connick called the performance "really, really strong" and said Watson was "doing everything right," and then gave her a long lecture about … um … something music-related.
Dexter Roberts gave his best performance at least since he sang "Lucky Man" and maybe ever on the show, with an easygoing take on Brett Eldredge's "One Mississippi."
Lopez said she heard "nuances" in Roberts' voice she hadn't heard before, adding that he'd done "everything we've been asking you to do … with that one performance." Connick called it the "perfect song" sung "beautifully" and said he'd been "touched" by the performance. "Fantastic job," he said, adding, somewhat oddly, "You have great ears, by the way." Urban said Roberts had "really grown by leaps and bounds," but cautioned him to "pay less attention" to the sound of his own voice and focus on getting across the lyric.
Jena Irene had her work cut out for her with her audition song, Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." Instead of trying to out-Adele Adele, she gave the song her own spin. It was a sort of lounge-y spin, true, but she does get points for originality. Urban gave her a standing ovation.
Connick noted that the thing Irene does with her tongue when she sings, which he had originally "thought was speech impediment," is actually a "really cool idiosyncrasy" he's come to enjoy. Urban credited Irene with taking "that song, which we all know so well," making it her own and never letting go of her original take. "Some people may hate that," he allowed. "I personally thought it was incredibly bold, and I loved every second of it." Lopez advised Irene to "come out there every week and blow everyone away and try to win this whole thing," adding that she was giving that advice to Irene specifically because she thought she could do it.
Caleb Johnson gave us our second dose of the Queen of Soul, singing Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" with the same power he brings to everything he tackles. Whether or not that was a good thing depended on which judge you asked.
Urban called Johnson's performance "killer." "You just deliver every week, Caleb," he said, calling him a "blues warrior," a "soul conqueror" and a "rock 'n' roll Viking." Lopez said it was if Johnson had been waiting all his life "to get up and do this." But Connick is apparently growing bored. Everyone knows Johnson is "big and loud" and a "really, really solid performer," Connick said, but he said he'd love for him to do "something that wasn't so loud for once … something quiet." "All the great rock singers," like Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant and Steve Perry, sometimes "did something softly." Wouldn't Johnson give it a try?
Last up, Alex Preston performed his original tune "Fairytales," marveling that he'd written the song in his basement as a "heartbroken kid" years ago, and now was performing it in front of millions of people. If the song was good when Preston had sung it during auditions, this time around, with the band backing him up, it sounded like a full-on hit.
Connick whistled his approval. Lopez admired the way Preston had stayed true to himself throughout the competition. Urban noted that it was a "really good sign" that people were singing his original song with him.
So after an evening of unusually strong performances, who will go home? I think C.J. Harris' number could be up, though audiences may not approve of Jena Irene's twist on Adele. Sam Woolf, too, could be vulnerable. What do you think?