After its lackluster Philadelphia auditions, in which few talents turned up to grab a ticket to Hollywood, "American Idol" found a plethora of singers it deemed worthy to advance in Little Rock, Ark., and Denver during a two-hour episode on Thursday.
It also found a 23-year-old blue-haired "singing nomad" who makes up songs about people on the spot (she called herself "Blue"); the judges admired her spirit, but not her musicality.
It welcomed the in-game host for the Denver Nuggets, Xavier Soller, who brought along a net and ball and invited the judges to take a shot. Despite complaints about the tightness of her dress, Jennifer Lopez sunk her shot easy. (Soller told her she'd won a lunch -- with him.) But the singing part of the Soller's audition ended up being an airball. Oh well. At least he woke up the room.
We also met a beautiful 25-year-old auctioneer from a small town in Iowa, Emily Wears, who wowed the judges with her ability to talk fast, but alas, not with her ability to sing.
Singers who fared better included:
Amber Lynn (28) and James VIII (23), two friends from Provo, Utah, who auditioned together. He accompanied her on guitar as she sang Allen Stone's "Unaware." Harry Connick Jr. accused him of "rushing bad," but the judges enjoyed her sound and vibe anyway. Connick was kinder to James VIII after the contestant sang John Legend's "Sun Comes Up," telling him he was "born to do this." Keith Urban admired James VIII's "groove." Both pals (Ryan Seacrest predicted they'd be more than pals within a year because "that's how it happens") made it through.
Chris "C.J." Johnson, a tatted-up 28-year-old professional musician from Memphis, Tenn., who surprised and pleased the judges by singing the Hall & Oates song "You Make My Dreams." Urban commended Johnson on his effortless singing, honed by "gigging on a regular basis," just before the singer collected three yeses.
Ethan Kuntz, a baby-faced, 15-year-old aspiring blues and southern rock singer from Nashville, Ark. He growled his way through the Allman Brothers' version of "Stormy Monday," but still managed to make it through to Hollywood. Connick (justifiably) voted no, telling Kuntz that, although he was an "immense talent" (really?), he didn't think he was ready, and anyway, "American Idol" probably wasn't the best place to launch a career as a blues and southern rock singer. But Lopez loved Kuntz. And Urban, well, he liked the kid's voice, but agreed with Connick that he was probably not ready for the spotlight. Still, he caved under pressure and voted him through.
Mary Williams, an effervescent 23-year-old horse trainer and mule-riding champ from Belfast, Tenn., who impressed Lopez (leg "goosies") and, to a lesser but sufficient degree, Connick with her rendition of Tammy Wynette's "Til I Can Make It on My Own." Urban was unconvinced. He thought Williams had not told the story of the song, but rather performed it. "I was missing the feeling, personally," he said. But no matter, Williams slid through without Urban's vote and will get a second chance to earn his regard in Hollywood.
Terrian Bass, a sunny 18-year-old from a rough neighborhood in Memphis (gang violence, drug abuse, gunshots) who wants to prove you don't have to be defined by the negativity around you. She underscored her point by singing "Happy," by Pharrell Williams. She was good, and somewhere in there, she hit an interesting note (unintentionally, it turns out) that impressed the judges almost as much as her upbeat vibe. Three yeses for the optimist!
Thomas Stringfellow, a super-cute 17-year-old from Bentonville, Ark., who apparently got Lopez's vote just by smiling at her, but then earned Connick's and Urban's as well with his original take on Ed Sheeran's "Give Me Love."
Tywan "Tank" Jackson, an energetic dance instructor from Ashtabula, Ohio, who at the "Idol"-overripe age of 29, first bowled the judges over by getting down with his patented "Tankercise" moves (they've helped him lose 60 pounds), and then managed to please with Luther Vandross' "Superstar." Lopez called him one of her favorites. Connick said that his big voice and passion for dancing and entertaining were "very powerful weapons" on a show like "Idol."
John Wayne Schulz, a handsome cowboy from Salt Lake City, who may look familiar to anyone who watched the show in Season 10, the year Scotty McCreery won. Schulz, now 27, was eliminated shortly before the live shows (possibly there was room enough for only one cowboy that year), but returned this year to honor his mom's memory (she had encouraged him to audition in the first place, but died of cancer soon after his elimination) and to give his own dream another try. His rendition of Garth Brooks' "The Dance" positioned him well. Connick called it a "perfect, succinct performance." Triple yes.
Jordyn Simone, 15, from Los Angeles, whose mature look and voice – she sang the Jackson 5's "Who's Lovin' You" – prompted the judges to question her tender age. "Come closer. Let me feel your fifteenness," Lopez begged. Connick told Simone she had shown "a complete variety of skills," "covered all the bases" and "sang beautifully." Lopez called her "something special." And Urban said he'd like to give her "something higher than a yes."
Kassy Levels, a 19-year-old from Dallas, and Rhea Raj, a 15-year-old from Princeton, N.J., whose auditions we only glimpsed before learning they'd made it through.
Jake Dillon, a 22-year-old plumber's apprentice and married father of two from Sand Springs, Okla., who did fine with Kenny Loggins' "Danny's Song," but failed to make a believer of Connick. "Good isn't gonna cut it," Connick told the young hopeful. "We're looking for spectacular." Still, Lopez and, ultimately, Urban, voted to put Dillon through. "I get touched by people who have that kind of drive and passion," Urban said, adding that he could see that Dillon "wanted it so bad."
Ashley Lilinoe, from Hawaii, who, when asked her age, said she'd "been around the sun 20 times" and then clarified that she was about to turn 21. After confusing the judges ("I am infinite," she told them), she managed to impress Connick and Urban enough with her version of Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet" to capture their votes. Lopez, who voted no, said she had been left wanting more, but Connick called Lilinoe "absolutely beautiful and very, very interesting."
Andrew Nazarbekian, 20, who was born in New York but grew up in Moscow and rose above his jet lag. With his version of Adele's "Make You Feel My Love" he earned the judges' love – and their votes. Lopez said he had a "naturally beautiful voice."
Elvie Shane, 27, of Caneyville, Ken., who bounced back from teenage drug use to marry and become a dad to his wife's sweet, shy young son. His take on the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" prompted Lopez to call his voice "spectacular" and "powerful" and Urban to call his love for performing "contagious." After Shane left with his golden ticket, Connick admired his name. "Elvie Shane, that's a vibe," he said.