American Idol Pittsburgh Audition Recap: Steel the One We Run To

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? In its 11th season (or 77th in canine years), American Idol, that rheumy-eyed toy poodle with the stiff hind end, is suddenly jumping through hoops of fire, walking tightropes on its front paws, and daring to dye its coat in shocking new hues.

Indeed, the show’s first visit to Pittsburgh, PA, found Steven Tyler cutting short a dirty limerick, a guy with a deeply compelling backstory failing to get a Golden Ticket to Hollywood, and not a single cruel-joke/obvious-gimmick audition in the course of the one-hour telecast.

Good dog, Idol, good dog!

Let’s fast-forward past the shots of Randy and Steven jamming, and J.Lo showing up late after weighing the wisdom of going to work in a black leather sports bra and ironic pleated beige skort, and skip directly to the good parts.

The curtain rises on Heejun Han, 22, a cute Asian guy in a jaunty black cap who essentially calls Ryan Seacrest a handsome pinhead — without sounding the least bit cruel. After spending time in the Idol Holding Pen (TM) alongside his fellow competitors, Heejun’s confidence has plummeted like a Voice finalist’s album on the Hot 100. “I’m not that good,” he tells Ryan, and then wonders, in fact, if he’s any good at all. But it turns out Heejun’s anxiety is unfounded. The guy correctly identifies J.Lo as the supermodel of the judges’ panel, even though she’s disguised in one of Mrs. Roper’s housedresses, and then delivers a rendition of Michael Bolton “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” that shows off a rich, smoky tone, an appealingly languid delivery, and just the occasional hint of a Korean accent. “Surprising! I was shocked,” says Randy, who 11 seasons into the job, has developed a Pavlovian response where he starts laughing at the racist joke before any Asian guy with an accent (or, really, anyone with a non-western name) gets out a single note. Hopefully he can get his bewilderment in check before he crosses paths with Heejun in Hollywood.

Reed Grimm, 26, comes into the room wearing sandals, a tattered shirt with visible pitstains (side note: I don’t think I’ve typed that word before, and now I’m almost certain I’ll never type it again), and his “dressed-down for the occasion” plaid shorts. The guy is clearly gunning to be this season’s answer to Casey Abrams, except instead of breaking out the melodica, he plays an imaginary clarinet, and shows off his jazzy rasp on the Family Matters themesong. The judges start throwing aroud words like “genius,” but my inner cynic is going to need to see more evidence that Reed is viewing his Idol experience as a more than a hipster lark — and that he’s willing to go to the laundromat at least once a week.

Next up is a pair of “blink and you’ll miss ’em” Golden Tickets: Aaron Marcellus gives good “A Change Is Gonna Come” (and pauses to give the most amazing “I’ve got this” grin at the judges midway through the chorus), though why he changed his last name from Sanders (the moniker with which he absolutely slayed it during Season 10’s Vegas/Beatles round) is a mystery. And then it’s Chase Linkins, who doesn’t make much of an impression beyond “country.” (At least that’s what my notes tell me.)

Samantha Novacek will not be relegated to a 20-second highlight reel, because she’s brought her sister, Patty the Perturbed Planker, along for the ride. There’s something sweetly unpolished about Samantha’s flip flops and sunburnt chest and “Emily Blunt as a blonde” vibe that strikes me as very Season 1 — before every potential auditioner had a publicist, a YouTube channel, and/or a major-label flop available on iTunes. And Samantha’s voice, showcased on a heartfelt, unfussy version of Faith Hill’s “Like We Never Loved at All,” turns out to be startling beautiful. Here’s hoping that’s enough to score her screentime during Hollywood Week — even without the human accessory.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies self-described “starving artist” Creighton Fraker, 28, who will never be described as unpolished, unfussy, or reminiscent of Season 1, and who probably already has business cards embossed with the following review from Steven Tyler: “The most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” We’re “treated” to footage of Creighton Barrel busking in a New York City park wearing bunny ears and rhinestone glasses, but he goes with a more subdued look — gray shirt with torn-off sleeves — to meet the judges, and chooses to audition with a song he says he just so happened to compose on the road to Pittsburgh. The ditty is moderately clever, I suppose, but when he breaks into “Who’s Loving You,” Creighton’s delivery becomes so self-conscious, his face-pulling so monstrously intense, that I start imagining that if he makes the live rounds, he should always have the same voting number: 1-866-Precious-Much? They-ai-ai-ai-airrrrrr-uh iii-iii-iii-sssuh-uhn’t ay-yay-yay siii-ii-ngle-syllable woo-ooo–ooh-oor-err-duh in Creighton’s repertoire. “He will not leave well enough alone!” growls my husband, who is still scarred by Jacob Lusk’s song-murdering spree during the spring of 2011.

Next up is Eben Franckewitz, and even if you’re opposed to the idea of 15-year-olds competing alongside adults in your reality competition series, it’s hard not to be charmed when he tells Ryan “it’s a privilege” to audition for the judges. (Cut to moms all across the country: “He’s such a nice boy!) Eben reveals that people think he looks like Justin Bieber, and I suppose he does just as much as any other babyfaced kid with bangs, but his musical influences are clearly a little less rooted in 2012. The boy tackles Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” with a cherubic beauty that conjures up visions of sugarplums and choir robes and intricately painted catherdral ceilings. No, it’s not really the right vibe for a mature love song, and Eben probably should’ve just gone the predictable route and performed “Baby,” but that doesn’t mean J.Lo is wrong when she remarks that Eben may have been born to sing. I just wish he’d waited three or four years to take the Idol journey.

Of course, if Eben gets cut before the Top 24, he can always audition again, much like Travis Orlando, who was pretty terrific in Season 10 tackling “Eleanor Rigby” and “I’m Yours” at the New Jersey auditions before getting cut in Hollywood Week. This time around, Travis’ backstory has gone from bad (he’d lived for a time in a shelter in the Bronx) to worse (his mother walked out on their family, and he’s back in the shelter with his dad and brother), and even more alarmingly, he admits to the judges that he dropped out of high school. No one on the judges’ panel seems particularly bothered by Travis abandoning a rudimentary education to chase his singing dream, but they’re a little ambivalent about his rendition of “Isn’t She Lovely.” Travis’ singing seems to be coming from a place of desperation now — he wants to show his mother he’s “not a good-for-nothing low-life” — and it’s difficult to watch. I keep waiting for J.Lo or Randy to make Travis’ Golden Ticket contingent on him promising to keep taking classes and get his diploma, but Jenny from the Block offers a bizarre platitude instead: “Scared is good.” Yeah, that’ll really be comforting to Travis when he’s 42 and living in a cardboard box under the Throgs Neck Bridge. But anyway, woohoo! You’re going to Hollywood!

Erika Van Pelt has her own set of hardships to overcome, seeing how she’ll have to shake off the “mobile DJ and wedding singer” label that makes people think she’s going to come off like a character in an Adam Sandler movie. (How awful!) Erika’s rendition of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is full of soul and longing, and her tone is impeccable, but she seems to have picked up some bad habits at her day job, throwing in a few too many runs and vocal tricks in an attempt to be heard above the din of clanging silverware.

Erika is followed by 19-year-old coal miner Shane Bruce, a sweetheart of a kid who gives us a tour of his workplace where he sings a lovely rendition of “In the Still of the Night” while surrounded by his awestruck, hard-hat-wearing coworkers. Shane’s visible nerves get the best of him when he gets in front of the judges, and to their credit, they don’t patronize him with a Golden Ticket. Not everyone is meant to be a singer, Steven offers, adding that just because Shane’s gift isn’t ready for primetime doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place in the world. “You singing to them down there — maybe that’s your forté,” he says. J.Lo invites him to come back again in Season 12, but Shane, who chose coal-mining because it will give him a “stable life,” is nonetheless heartbroken over flubbing his big chance. “You’ve gotta chase the dream, but you get bruises, cuts, and scrapes along the way,” he says, his eyes filled with tears. “It slipped through my fingers.”

(Help! I’m bawling and I can’t get up!)

Oh whew, it’s time for the day’s final audition, and hopefully a happy ending, courtesy of 24-year-old Hallie Day, who dropped out of high school at 15 to be in a girl group called Plum Crazy, descended into financial ruin and an addiction problem, and attempted suicide before she met her husband and turned her life around. Her choice of “I Will Survive” makes sense lyrically more than it does musically, but Hallie’s luscious, brassy approach to the disco classic is fresh and unexpected, and after two days of auditions focused mostly on singers who aren’t yet old enough to vote, it’s extra thrilling to see a grown-ass woman infusing a song with her considerable and difficult life experience. “She could win,” remarks J.Lo, after Hallie leaves the room with a Golden Ticket, and in the words of Milli Vanilli, “Girl, you know it’s true.”

What did you think of the Pittsburgh auditions? Who was your favorite? Whose Golden Ticket should’ve been revoked? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol news, interviews, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!