American Idol Top 9 Performance Recap: The Band That Rocks the Idols [Updated]

MB1_4935Nobody (who’s not an employee of Fox or Fremantle Entertainment) is going to pretend the current incarnation of American Idol is the best! season! ever! But for those of us with memories long enough to remember Kara Dioguardi’s “package artist” war cries/crimes, Simon Cowell’s predictable fake-outs and that time Ellen DeGeneres tried her hand at unfiltered critique (it’s OK… she lived to host the Oscars), perhaps we should stop insisting it’s the worst?

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Sure, the nine remaining contenders are a little rough around the edges. There’s not a single contestant with a full page of IMDb credits or multiple failed major-label deals or experience as the musical director for Celine Dion (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But without going all One Direction on you, that’s what makes them beautiful. Or in other words, it’s the growth-under-extreme-pressure arc that’s always made The House That Kelly Clarkson Built (With a Second Wing Furnished by Carrie Underwood) a home of wide-eyed, fun-for-the-whole-family thrills.

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The good news is that tonight, buoyed by an “I’m With the Band!” theme that released Rickey Minor and his motley crew of players from their sidestage cage and allowed them to integrate more fully with the performers, most of the remaining hopefuls showed dramatic (or at least incremental) improvement. Rome wasn’t built in a day — nor was Jennifer Hudson’s path to the EGOT, for that matter.

In other words, with seven weeks of live performances left to go, I’m starting to get more optimistic about the Season 13 extravaganza. I’d be even happier if executive producer Per Blankens took a cue from this week’s successes and moved the Idol house band to a more central location — the better for the contestants to interact with/feed off of/learn from/jam out with more experienced players. It certainly can’t hurt — especially if it increases the number of Allison Iraheta sightings per hour.

So with that in mind, let’s jump to letter grades for tonight’s performances:

Alex Preston: No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” — Grade: A- | Look, I can’t disagree with Harry about wanting to see Alex move away from the mic, start thinking about his season as a full set, and recognize that he needs to shake things up in terms of tone and tempo and movement. That said, his Mraz-y rhythmic choices and jazzy vocal flourishes (loved that “d-d-d-don’t speak”) transported the song to a space far, far away from Gwen Stefani’s vocal approach — without rendering the melody or the emotions unrecognizable. Without any discernably serious mentoring from Randy Jackson (man, the Dawg’s rehearsal comments are meaningless!), Alex continues to champion originality as aggressively as he rolls his pant legs. And isn’t that supposed to be one of the main points of this exercise?

Majesty Rose: Florence + The Machine’s “Shake It Out” — Grade: A- | I had serious reservations about Majesty trying to climb a peak as steep and treacherous as Mt. Florence — especially since none of her prior performances hinted at a voice with the range and brute power of Ms. Welch’s. Yet while Majesty’s intonation was by no means perfect, she brought a breeziness to the tune that felt more like making a Snow Angel at the base of the mountain — as opposed to strapping on her climbing gear and scaling the scary heights. Perhaps it was the ’60s waitress/stewardess jumper she was rocking, or the way she shimmyed with her tambourine, but I found myself agreeing with J.Lo that the technical imperfections were trumped by the good vibrations of the performance. Through her phrasing and physical energy, Majesty reminded us that, yes, it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back — but even the scariest of demons can be shaken out of one’s system. I believed it, therefore I dug it.

Dexter Roberts: Little Big Town’s “Boondocks” — Grade: C+ | This was another reasonably OK cover of the kind of soaring, propulsive country anthem Dexter’s been clinging to like a beetle to a windshield for five out of the last six weeks (and that you can hear in just about any saloon with live music in 50 states and parts of Canada). There was nothing especially wrong the Alabama fella’s “Boondocks” — but come on, I’ve had glasses of tap water that were more unpredictable and complex in flavor. And frankly, if Dexter isn’t interested and/or capable of expanding his musical offerings beyond “sparkling,” “still” or “tap,” (OK, “sparkling” is too out-there… who am I kidding?) then how does he really deserve to finish in the upper half of the Season 13 race?

Malaya Watson: The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” — Grade: B- | How do you solve a conundrum like Malaya? On one hand, it’s hard to not respect the kid for making one of the riskiest song choices of the night — landing on an introspective Beatles classic to follow up her forays into R&B, Broadway and Gospel over the last three weeks. Plus, she continues to show great improvement in terms of restraint (no small task in such a short period of time). But while Keith was dropping platitudes like “you really showed me your spirit,” all I wanted to hear was a maturity in tone, an attempt to quash some of the nasally-ness that causes Malaya’s belted notes to come out on the barely tolerable side of shrieky. The good news for Ms. Watson is that the music biz really is a long and winding road — so she’s got time to perfect her craft, get a little better at conveying the depth of emotion in a song, too. The bad news? I’m not sure that even replacing Randy with a rotating roster of past Idol standouts would be enough to get her ready for a confetti shower by the end of May. (C’mon kid, prove me wrong!)

Sam Woolf: Plain White Ts’ “Hey There Delilah” — Grade: B- | Fun “fact”: The Idol wardrobe department fully intended to dress Sam in a plain white t-shirt this week. The garment in question, however, suffered a traumatic dryer accident and was recast as a dishrag for MasterChef Junior. And that’s how the show’s lone teen heartthrob wound up rocking a throw-pillow cover from the Kathy Ireland for Raymour & Flanigan patio furniture collection. But wait, shouldn’t we be talking about “Hey There Delilah”? (And no, I don’t mean Junot Joyner’s criminally underrated Season 8 rendition.) OK, so here are my thoughts on Sam. He’s got a lovely gruffness to his voice. He almost always sings in tune. He knows the strengths and limitations of his voice. But put aside his guitar, and he’s less Phillip Phillips or Kris Allen than he is Thia Megia or Aaron Kelly — a teenager whose knives aren’t yet sharp enough to cut all the way throught the meat of an emotional lyric. When J.Lo asked if Sam had someone in mind as he sang his song — and the SwayBots began to coo (ugh) — Sam seemed a little flummoxed, as if it hadn’t occurred to him to figure out what the lyric meant to him, specifically. Making matters worse, said emotions never seem to travel onto Sam’s face, adding another layer of disconnect to the proceedings. It could just come down to song choice, but I’m beginning to think Sam’s shortcomings are part of a larger problem. And that problem was he needed a few more years to ripen artistically before getting picked for the Idol Top 30.

Jessica Meuse: Fleetwood Mac’s “Rihannon” — Grade: B+ | I’m with J.Lo in that I could listen to Jessica sing all day — her voice is just so clear and cutting and full of sneaky little twists. (I’m also gonna take this opportunity and admit to hooting and hollering when she got to the “dreams unwind, love’s a state of mine” refrain, because I wasn’t sure if it was gonna fit into her abbreviated Idol rendition.) But “Rihannon” was almost too tailored for Jessica’s voice — a slight case of Dexter Roberts Syndrome, if you will. I mean, given all her performing experience, it’s hard not to wonder why Jessica isn’t bolder in the song selection department, why she doesn’t attempt radical reimagingings of songs you’d never expect her to perform, why she gave us “The Crow and the Butterfly” in Top 13 week and has deliberately refused to rock our faces off or get out of the midtempo lane ever since. In other words, on its own, “Rihannon” was lovely. But as part of her larger body of Season 13 work, it was just a tad underwhelming.

C.J. Harris: The Steel Drivers’ “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” — Grade: C- | Let me take a page from my pal Melinda Doolittle’s Twitter page and say three nice things: 1. C.J.’s pre-performance package reiterated what a nice fella he seems to be. 2. I love watching how emotional his girlfriend gets while he performs. 3. I’m pretty sure he introduced me to a cool new song in “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” — if you subtract out the dozens and dozens of bunk notes C.J. hit while he delivered it. Meanwhile, as Harry Connick Jr. delivers his third straight week of “Work on your pitch!” pep talks to C.J., Malcolm Allen, Spencer Lloyd, Casey Thrasher, Maurice Townsend and George Lovett look skyward and shout, “That Wild Card shoulda been mine!”

Caleb Johnson: Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” — Grade: A- | How come Caleb gets an A- for a straightforward cover of a song directly in his wheelhouse, while Dexter does the same and gets a C+? Simply put, because Caleb’s cover was explosive — making full use of the band to catapult his sound forward, working the stage with icy cold confidence, nailing every note square on the nose in the process. Plus, it’s not like Caleb’s been content to rest on his laurels, and it’s not like “Dazed and Confused” — with its wide swaths of wordless jamming — wasn’t a teensy bit audacious for a reality singing competition. This one was Rated R…for Rock on With Your Bad Self.

Jena Irene: Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” — Grade: A | She might be just a kid, but I feel like Jena already has her Ph.D. in dynamics — and “Bring Me to Life” might as well have been her thesis. Like water, her voice just slips into the crevices and nooks of whatever song (and whatever genre) she chooses to tackle: There was the haunting beauty of the opening verse, the jolt of aggression on the chorus, the haunted crumbling of the “wake me up inside” repetition on the bridge. And above all else, Jena’s very specific tone and flawless sense of pitch and timing allow her to take ownership rather than to merely borrow the tunes she covers. And if her trajectory of growth continues in this direction, she might wind up taking ownership of Season 13 in its entirety.

Should Be Bottom 3: Dexter, C.J., Sam (C.J. going home)
Will Be Bottom 3: Dexter, C.J., Malaya (C.J. going home)

What did you think of the Top 9? Who were your faves? Who’s in trouble? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments! And for all my reality TV-related news, interviews and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. Yo says:

    Well, I just hope Majesty survives. She is hellishly talented.

  2. Trisha26 says:

    Jena is okay but brings absolutely nothing new to the music landscape. She’ll be another pop/rock princess who can actually sing but I’m ready for something NEW like Alex or Caleb!!!!!

  3. Jessica says:

    Great job to Jena and Caleb-Caleb could have went even bigger with his performance. Jessica needs to learn how to walk around at least and she can be great. I love Sam’s song choices. Malaya-sigh- I can’t take her seriously. Dexter can go home now. I liked Alex when all top 9 sang and agreed with Harry that I liked when he walked-he put more energy in that walk than all of his performances. I’ll say it again all of them can use help really letting loose and getting lesson in stage performance.

  4. Maria Turner says:

    Majesty an A-? What were you listening to? She was awful in the medley. She was so awful in Shake it out, it was painful to watch. It seems trying to belt it out when you can’t has been given points here, whereas singing on key all, not most, of the time, makes singers like Sam boring. Sam isn’t boring or empty. He’s just a shy, sweet 17-year-old who’s not trying to be anything other than himself. I’d rather see a shy person with spot-on A vocal than an overconfident, entitled person who screams and can’t even hear herself sing. Character is sure to develop over time, performance can be improved on, but if you just don’t got the voice or control like Majesty, well there’s the more difficult hurdle.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks, Michael! I watched Ju’Not Joyner’s rendition of “Hey There Delilah” and was transported. And NO Swaybots!!!!

  6. BrazenSongBird says:

    Alex-I adore this kid’s style and musicianship, but Harry is right. Individually taken, Alex has had some amazing performances. This week was no exception. However, with the season taken as a whole, Alex is becoming predictable and a little boring. He’ll need to shake up his performance style if he’s going to make it all the way to the finale. The jazz riffs in both in the instrumental and his vocal are simply happy-making though.

    Majesty-I disagree with Mr. Slezak on this one. I thought her vocal was very weak. The performance was better than last week, but she was at the very top of her belt with little or no breath support. Made for a bunch of bum notes. Majesty needs a quiet moment, all the way through. It’ll preserve her voice and it’s what she’s best at.

    Dexter-Pleasant cover performance. What you’d see from your favorite band at the local bar. To me, Dexter has the perfect bluegrass voice (mournful and clear), so I would love to see him take a pop hit and put a country/bluegrass twist on it.

    Malaya-Great song choice. And I like what she was doing stylistically. But she has a young voice, trying to be older, so she pushes sometimes. It’s not so bad, but it would be better if she didn’t. The nasally thing will dissipate with maturity. Also, she’s not closing her melismas. If she really wants to win this thing, she needs to take Harry’s advice and “sit” with her music. Hear the chords and then decide how to embellish it.

    Sam- I liked the song choice for him and as Keith says, he has a voice like buttah, but he’s absolutely dead in the face. zzzzzzzzzzzzzz! This kid really needs a Chris or Adam to wake his performance skills up!

    Jessica-She does sound like Stevie, but all I could think about through her performance, was Haley’s version. (Wind machine!). I WISH that she had done Edge of Seventeen! Can you imagine how good that could have been? I still love her though.

    CJ-I liked his song choice…Poor guy needs to find a way to get his nerves in check.

    Caleb-I love Led Zeppelin so this was soooo good for me!! The band was tight and Caleb was their indisputable front man. When they announced the title, I was little concerned about it being such a heavy instrumental, but Caleb’s wail ruled. The very cool thing about Caleb is that his technique is very solid. I’m not worried about burnout with him at all.

    Jena-So impressed! I’ve sung this one, so I KNOW how tough it is. The tessitura is crazy, especially for a rock song! In the first two lines it goes right to the break and sits there. Jena is a definite talent, but I’m with another poster. I think she could possibly have problems down the road, because of bad habits that she has. Her tongue is too high and her throat closes on certain notes. She powers through it, but it could be a recipe for nodes. Now, this all might be moot, because some lucky people are just born with crazy-strong vocal chords, but why tempt fate? She’ll need some vocal lessons with a technically oriented teacher to get rid of this issue.

    All in all, I thought this week was much improved over last. :)

    • Stormy says:

      So next week it’s their audition songs but with the band. Yikes. 3 of them sang an original song so this may help them.
      Caleb – his own Into the Void
      Jessica – her original Blue-eyed Lie
      Alex – can’t remember but he wrote it
      Dexter – Casey James’ I Like To Drive [not promising]
      CJ – The Allman Brothers Soul Shine
      Mlaya – Aretha’s Ain’t No Way [double yikes]
      Majesty – Violet Hill by Coldplay
      Jena – Adele’s Rolling In The Deep [no Haley comments please]
      Sam – Lego House by Ed Sheeran
      Now, obviously one of these won’t happen due to tonight’s elimination. Not sure I can bear to watch this.

      • darcy's evil twin says:

        Hang in there Stormy. Slam down some wine and enjoy!

      • Timmah says:

        I predict that they will all happen due to the save being used tonight.

        • Stormy says:

          If that happens will there be a double elimination next week?

          • deedee says:

            Not sure. They may have factored in the save when finalizing the schedule. Last year they didn’t use the save, but scheduled one in, so they had to end up doing two Top 4 weeks.

      • Lynn says:

        Helps some, hurts others, as expected. Not Jena’s or Malaya’s best. Didn’t even bother with Dexter, just assuming it’s yet another rendition of Aw Naw. Favors the boys for sure, although Jessica, if she does it right, can get a push from this. I don’t care for her voice or performances and I thought she was easily the best audition out of the girls.

      • Alan Dvorkis says:

        Looking forward to Sam’s Lego House. There is still brilliance within the boredom.

  7. darcy's evil twin says:

    Jessica’s “Rhiannon” as good. I liked her better on the group number, “Satisfaction”. I’ve just never been a big fan of “Rhiannon”, even though I have a friend that named her daughter Rhiannon.
    Finally got the chance to watch the rest of the program. Oh Caleb, Caleb, Caleb – that’s the closest we’ve come to a “moment” and how I’ve missed that electric guitar in music. Come to mama! Now THAT’S “I’m With the Band”!
    Jena did a decent job on “Bring Me to Life” and she can belt out a song, but I just can’t get past the fact I don’t care for that techno-music. And there’s just something about her voice I’m not crazy about. Maybe if she just sat at the piano again and took it down a notch. Can’t explain it.

  8. Tamara says:

    Looks like Jena’s the poster child Haley Reinhart this season for TvLine readers… I like her and she was the second best last night by far, but Caleb was out of this world! I’m a huge Zeppelin fan so I’m very protective of people singing their songs lol, but Caleb killed it. Yes it was fairly faithful to the original but sometimes keeping it true to the artist is better than being contrived and it is NOT easy to sing that kind of slow jam rock song with such power and pitch perfection, very few people can.

    Even in the group performance, Calebs was the only voice that rang clear and strong through all the music. Jena was great but I’ve heard a bunch of other people cover that song just as well. Very surprised that she’s leading the poll ahead of Caleb.

  9. Jim Welker says:

    Well, My 3 from the start, Caleb, Sam and Rose are still around, although only Caleb has been consistantly good! Caleb and Jena were great with Jena being best last night! Watson waz alright! The rest can go fly kites! Alex still looks like he hS the runs and needs a toilet fast! Jessica is just horrible as usual! Stevie Nicks???? A real laugher! A screaming injured cat at best! Let ‘s see CJ or Dex go already! But let Meuse go first so she can be a professional Stage Mother Harasser! I still say Alex, Meuse and former top 15 Boy, Briston Maroney should form a group, THE DELUDEDS and be a comedy act on AGT! I lost all respect for these judges when they let that Hound Dog On Crack skunding Briston make it to top 15 Boys! He’ s worse than William Hung! This season is a true Comedy Show!

  10. Jim Welker says:

    Sorry for Typos on my last comments! Brandy, another perskn who commented yesterday agrees with my Comments! THANKS BRANDY! Sorry, it is Honey Barlett! Hope you like my honest, not fake comments!

  11. Jim Welker says:

    Excuse me, Meuse sounds like a cat being castrafed and tortured!

  12. Jim Welker says:

    Meant CASTRATED!

  13. Jim Welker says:

    No, not an ex of that pig Meuse! God no! ..that is worse than death! Did anyone notice the squat motions Majesty was making? She looked like she needed to go number 2 real bad! Those hgly legs…YUK! And Sam and Dexter, what is with makeup caked on! Theg should be in Zombie Moviss!

  14. Jim Welker says:

    Meant ugly legs and they should be in ZOMBIE MOVIES! Also, JLO loved Majesty’s showmanship! PALEEEEESE! A toilet break was what it looksx like! POOR THING!

  15. Honey Barlett says:

    To Jim Welker: Again, thanks for your comments! They are so funny but so true.I agree with you that this show has the worst talent ever. Cj and Dexter are terrible and should be doing karaoke! I also dislike Alex and especially Jessica. You description of her her sounding like a cat being castrated and tortured! I love your toilet comments. How is Cj keep surviving especially after judges say he is sharp, never singing in key? Maybe you can figure it out. Crazy voters I guess! Thanks again. PLEASE COMMENT TONIGHT: CANNOT WAIT!

  16. Honey Barlett says:

    Oh, I forgot, that Brimstone was the worst singer ever! I wasn’t familiar with him but saw his Stones song on You Tube. Was that music coming out of his mouth? Animal calls are more like it. He sounded Drunk or on drugs! Jlo says Caleb is sexy. Is she losing it?

  17. Honey Barlett says:

    The terrible singer is Briston

  18. Honey Barlett says:

    Please readers, look it up. Worst singer in Television History! Tiny Tim was more talented.

  19. Honey Barlett says:

    Michael, I just read you could listen to Jessica all day long. Are you ok these days? She is terrible! Now, Doolittle, she’s the best! Listen to her. I just don’t get it; you must like cats, injured ones! She could howl with a cat and dog at ambulances, that is about all. I respect your reviews but giving a horrible singer constant A’s and B’s is so wrong..Creepy singing is what it is, at best.

  20. 2 young 2B wise says:

    I love that the producers are now putting the name of the song and original artist on the screen when the performance first starts. I don’t always recognize the song and this really helps. I’m sure it helps iTune sales for the original artist as well because people can more easily pull up the song with a name and artist listed. They have always shown the song title on SYTYCD and I have found a lot of new songs I liked that way.

  21. waterbug says:

    puhlease send CJ or Dexter home! puhlease!

  22. DonB says:

    Simon Cowell once said it’s a singing contest. Of course it isn’t. it’s 50% singing, 50% performing/acting/connecting. (Sometimes 60/40 either way) Caleb is generally at the top of most people’s lists because he gets 40-45 out of 50 for most performances and 40-45 for his voice, or in this season the basic ability to stay on key. The others are automatically giving away the bulk of voice and/or performance. This season is not memorable because it is so lacking on the performance side and the voices overall are not memorable, maybe a max total of 65 out of 100 for everyone but Caleb and Jena. Other seasons had more in the 75-80 out of 100 range in the voice/performance combination. This season is dramatically different. I suspect but surely wouldn’t know that if the show and judges had chosen older, more mature contestants the learning curve would have been much shorter and the season more salvageable. The show has to grab interest in January, not March, to stay pertinent. What normal person would pin her or his hopes and ratings and survival on an unseasoned 16 year old Malaya Watson or 17 year old Sam Wolfe? No one on this blog for sure if s/he had to put their money and job on the line.

  23. Come on with the Majesty A-. Those high notes were disgusting. Michael, you can’t truly have thought that was good. Is the grading on a curve or something? Cause if that was an A-, then almost everyone from past seasons should have gotten A+ for all of their performances.

  24. lunaburning says:

    I realize that I am in the minority here, but I just don’t get the appeal of Jena’s voice. To me, she sounds like Celine Dion, trying to sound like Eddie Vedder, while having a seizure.

  25. iamwill says:

    wondering why Slezak gave Majesty a A- for Shake It Up. It was “pitchy” all over, especially when she belts it out. Her sound is more “Royals” and less “Adele Dazeem”. She must not cover big songs.

  26. Alan Dvorkis says:

    Do not agree with the mega praise for Caleb. He does nothing unique in his performances, not even the slightest tweak. He makes rock and roll songs rock. Big deal. I do enjoy his performances, although the floor fall felt forced and unnecessary, but the judges bubbling and Mike’s A, I do not feel are deserved.