In an evening packed with top-notch, knock-it-out-of-the-park performances, "The Voice" Season 8 top 12 – who really may be the show's most stellar top 12 yet – vied to remain in the competition on Monday night.
Reba McEntire provided guest-mentorship – and apparently a great deal of excitement for the vocalists and their families. Hannah Kirby's mom tried to snag a strand of McEntire's red hair right off her head in a moment her contestant daughter correctly labeled "creepy," though Reba herself seemed rather amused.
"I just love that kind of stuff," the country superstar said, with what seemed to be characteristic good humor and generosity. A self-declared "Voice" fan, McEntire helped the coaches elicit the best of the performers in nearly every instance, though nerves did seem to take their toll on two or three performances.
Here's who did what and how it all went:
Hannah Kirby (Team Blake): Kirby, whom coach Blake Shelton, and not the audience, had put through to the top 12, launched the show on a strong note, letting her vocals shine – and for once, not letting her trademark dance moves overpower them -- on Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen." Pharrell Williams, who had at one point been her coach, said she'd finally shown everyone how she could marry her dancing and singing. And Shelton told her, "I don't see how you could humanly possibly be a better vocalist than you are. It blows my mind."
Brian Johnson (Team Adam): Johnson had also made it through to the top 12 by the grace of his coach, in what may be considered a somewhat surprising choice. Here he paid tribute to the faith of those who believe in him, especially his wife, with Sting's "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You." But while Johnson is vocally capable, he's a rather bland performer. I often find my interest drifting when he's onstage. In this performance, even his vocals, generally solid, seemed a bit uneven. The coaches, though, offered praise. Shelton, Johnson's former coach, called the performance "powerful" and moving. Adam Levine, noting the difficulty of singing Sting's music, credited Johnson with "conquering" his early struggles with the song.
India Carney (Team Christina): Carney, a classically trained vocalist, was pushed by her coach to bring forth her inner rock chick, "take on a little personality" and become "a little evil" in her delivery of Hozier's "Take Me to Church." To me, the role seemed out of character. The performance, while emphatic and assured, lacked authenticity. Still, Pharrell Williams gushed that he felt like a fan at her concert. Levine noted that Carney was definitely building a fan base. Shelton admired her commitment and energy, saying he believed it so much he was ready to give her a ride to church. (Ha.) And Aguilera seemed thrilled that Carney had displayed a new "conviction" and ability to connect with the audience. "I really saw a different person tonight," she said. She meant it as a compliment, but I kind of preferred the old person.
Mia Z (Team Pharrell): Williams is obsessed with this teen singer's ultra-high notes – her "whistle" or "dolphin" tones, as he calls them. But I am more impressed by her silky tone and slinky delivery, both of which belie her tender years. She chose a perfect song for her voice, the Rolling Stones' "Miss You," and spent just a little too much time working the crowd, but still managed to land it just right. Levine said it was "refreshing" to see her cover the stage and "do something that was a little more subdued." Shelton expressed admiration for how "inventive" she was "with a melody" and said she had "something only a handful of vocalists have." Aguilera said she always kept it "interesting" and commended her for hitting the "stratosphere area" of her voice. Williams said she'd exceeded the goals she'd set for herself and that he "couldn't wait to do more" with her.
Deanna Johnson (Team Adam): Johnson followed her performance of a spiritual song last week with a Christian rock song this week, Hillsong United's "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)," a fact that concerned her but not her coach. Levine maintained the choice was "not just a Christian song," but rather a "contemporary song with a great message." Unfortunately, that message was a bit obscured. As the coaches noted, it was difficult to hear Johnson in the song's opening lines, for reasons that were not entirely clear, but once she moved forward onstage and projected, she did well, showing off her trademark full-throated Cher-like tone. Levine admitted that Johnson, who has struggled with nerves, had had her "ups and downs along the way," but celebrated the moment she realized she was doing well and relaxed.
Sawyer Fredericks (Team Pharrell): This sweet-spirited, long-haired singer, the youngest in the competition, brought his sincerity and surprisingly strong voice to John Lennon's "Imagine," powering through a vocal stumble like a pro and sending the song's message soaring. Levine called his natural ability "one in a billion." Shelton said was "a champ" who made everything he did "seem right." Aguilera admired his "natural gift" for performing. Williams said he was actually "relieved" when he heard the fluffed note because he knew that everyone would be able to see him work his way back. "The coolest thing is to watch this guy sing his way out of a situation," he said.
Rob Taylor (Team Christina): Why the audience didn't vote Taylor through last week, leaving it to his coach to put in the top 12, was anybody's guess – though it probably had something to do with the level of his worthy competitors on Team Christina. With Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" – which showed his remarkable range and passionate performance style -- he more than distinguished himself, setting himself up to remain in the competition for at least as long as the spell he cast on us would last. All four coaches rose to give him a standing ovation. Williams called the performance "masterful." Levine said Taylor had "definitely pulled ahead in the race." Aguilera commended him for giving an "exciting" performance, letting everything go and "living" the music. "That's the kind of performance that I come back to do 'The Voice' for," she said.
Corey Kent White (Team Blake): As the competition's sole remaining country singer (though Linsey may be challenging that claim – see below) and a cute young fellow to boot, White is probably a shoo-in to stick around at least another week. Add to that McEntire's endorsement (she said he had a "sincerity" and ability to connect that "country music needs today) and it may not matter that he was frequently off-key in his delivery of Jason Aldean's "Why." Levine generously said he was "almost there," "so close," and on "the precipice of something that's really impactful." Shelton seemed almost rueful about White's solid chances of survival. "Tonight you didn't sing perfectly, but you always deliver the lyric perfectly," he said, adding that, "once we hit that moment when it all comes together at once, you're a threat to win this show." But if White fails to improve and yet prevails over a field of better vocalists just because he gets the country vote, that would be a real disappointment.
Koryn Hawthorne (Team Pharrell): Put through to the top 12 by her coach, Hawthorne channeled all her rise-above-adversity energy into Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," initially unaware that Clarkson was guest mentor McEntire's daughter-in-law. McEntire predicted Clarkson would be "thrilled to pieces" by Hawthorne's rousing version of the song. Certainly the coaches, who rose to their feet in unison, were. Shelton said it seemed like Hawthorn was ticked off that America hadn't voted her through and so came out and "slayed it." "Talk about making the most out of getting this second chance," he said, extending an early welcome into the top 10. Aguilera commended Hawthorne for rearranging the song and for attacking it "as Tina Turner" might. Williams declared himself to be "in awe" and appealed to "everybody in the Christian world and the gospel world" to vote Hawthorne through.
Joshua Davis (Team Adam): Levine prevailed upon Davis to put down his guitar and sing Simon and Garfunkel's "America" without it – a major departure for the aspiring singer-songwriter. It worked, prompting Shelton to admit that, since he didn't know the song (!), he almost felt as if Davis had written it himself. ("Do you know any songs?" Levine teased.) Aguilera commended Davis for stepping out of his comfort zone and trying "something new." Williams contended that it was Davis's "best performance yet." Levine called it "perfect."
Meghan Linsey (Team Blake): Despite her stated goal of establishing herself as a soul singer, Linsey strategically staked her claim to the country vote with Little Big Town's "Girl Crush." And she staked it hard. "She kicked the dog poop out of that song," McEntire said after rehearsing with Linsey. Her performance itself may have been better still – displaying vocal and emotional depth, grit and nuance. "The only thing I don't like about you is that you're on Blake's team," Levine told her, adding that she was "always amazing" and always killed it. "I think you just had a breakout moment," Shelton told his old pal. "You just really connected with that song in a way even I didn't know you were capable of. That was incredible."
Kimberly Nichole (Team Christina): Speaking of incredible … you had to wonder how Nichole, the evening's capper, would top the performances that had come before, but she managed to do so with "The House of the Rising Sun." She stomped and strutted, shook her peaked shoulders and swished her tutu-esque skirt, and sang the stuffing out of the song, and then sat back and basked in the adulation from coaches and the crowd she'd earned. Williams and Levine were left stuttering and speechless. Aguilera said she'd never heard the song interpreted that way "ever." And Shelton said, "I think we've got to talk about the possibility of Christina winning her first season of 'The Voice.'"