Once you’ve tasted Marcus Samuelsson’s cooking or watched Matt Damon pummel an enemy with his bare hands (on the big screen, of course), it’s hard to get excited about watching some up-and-comer try to pull off an imitation. And that was my worry going into Kelly Clarkson Night on American Idol.
I mean, we all knew the Season 1 champ and the woman whose pipes have pumped lifeblood into Fox’s reality singing franchise for 13 years was going to make a kick-awesome mentor. But insisting that the Season 14 Top 9 cover the vocal beast’s greatest hits seemed, on paper, like a recipe consisting of equal parts botched notes, wonky ad libs and gasping interludes.
Miraculously, though, more than half of the remaining Season 14 contestants stepped up with solid — and in some cases, even stellar — performances.
OK, Harry Connick Jr. couldn’t let a single lovely performance go by without doing his best impression of the sour old man down the block who shakes his hooked finger of disapproval even at fresh-baked babies in strollers and the first robin of spring — sorry, that metaphor got away from me — but he could not rain on the stuff like that there.
Lord knows, I’d have punched a hole in the wall had “Mr. Intonation” had something negative to say about Kelly’s one-two punch of “Heartbeat Song” and “At Last” — both of which confirmed her place right at the tippy-top of the current pop-star vocal pecking order.
But let’s not get caught up in Harry’s cantankerousness. Instead, I’ll get on with my letter grades and reviews for this week’s performances:
Nick Fradiani – “Catch My Breath” | Grade: B- | I’m not gonna lie: I started to worry about Nick the moment Kelly declared “Catch My Breath” as her most difficult hit to sing live. Turns out, the fear was somewhat warranted, as the usually spotless elder statesman of Season 14 lost a little control at the top end of his range, and wound up sounding more shouty than intense through the final third of the song. (That said, the sound mix on this one was very drum-heavy… and kinda… odd?) There were pretty moments, too — Nick’s got an appealingly Daughtry-esque quaver to his tone — but if he doesn’t start choosing ditties that bring out the best in his voice, he could find himself needing an Idol Fan Save before April is over.
Jax – “Beautiful Disaster” | Grade: B+ | I’ve heard some people complain that the airy quality of Jax’s tone makes her a less-than-worthy Idol candidate. And while I’ll never ever buy a ticket for that particular bandwagon — be honest, is your iTunes just a collection of belter after belter after belter? — I was also stoked to hear Jax put some real force behind the chorus of one of my favorite Kelly ditties. The way she shaded in the conflicted emotions of “Beautiful Disaster” reminded me of a portrait etched in charcoal: She brought to life the excitement one feels over a potential new love interest and at the same time let us see her lingering doubts over his viability. Were there a few smudges in pitch? Sure. But I’m willing to forgive most of ’em just because Jax was badass enough to tackle Kelly without the safety net of big, booming support from the band.
Tyanna Jones – “Mr. Know It All” | Grade: B- | To my ears, Tyanna’s performance veered from clean, crisp and potent to kinda sorta yikes-y, then back, then forth, then back and forth again — at least when the background singers weren’t carrying the vocal load on the bridge. And unfortunately, as the 16-year-old attempted to iron out her pitch, I felt like she began to drift away from delivering her lyrics in a truly committed fashion (which means I side with Keith on this one, not Harry). My big worry for Tyanna is that without vocal perfection (or something close to it), she lacks other skills — surprising arrangements, unexpected song choices, emotional heft or an intriguing point of view — that activate speed-dialing voters. Tyanna’s got stronger pipes than last season’s teen phenom Malaya Watson — but I’m starting to doubt if she’ll go much further than that charmer’s 8th-place run.
Joey Cook – “Miss Independent” | Grade: A | First, a complaint: Why didn’t Scott Borchetta (or anyone on the Idol staff) see that the positioning of Joey’s mic and the camera angle used by the show’s director obscured half her face for almost her entire, exceptional performance? (Also: Please tell me I wasn’t the only one distracted by such an annoying production snafu?) That said, Joey’s vocal — and her approach to La Clarkson’s most generic R&B-lite hit — were downright thrilling. I loved all the tension Joey brought to the verse about an uptight gal unable to open herself to love — and the way it contrasted with the vocal/emotional release on the chorus. This was hands-down the most unique spin on a tune we’ve seen in Season 14 — and there wasn’t a bum note in the bunch. Why Harry had to rag on Joey for her noir-ish red dress and staging (all of which were gorgeous) is a mystery of “Where’s Dunkelman?” proportions, but if I like this as much after 20 repeat viewings as I did the first time, it might be time to update my All-Time Best Idol Performances gallery. Srsly!
Quentin Alexander – “Dark Side” | Grade:
A A-| I’m not exactly sure why Harry went on a rant about Quentin needing to “spend some time on the technical part” of his singing tonight when, from my couch, he was dead accurate for almost all of his mesmerizing cover of Kelly’s moodiest hit (one which, I realized tonight, has a very similar melody on the verse as “I Believe I Can Fly”!). OK, sure there were a few bum notes (I downgraded from A to A- upon second and third listen…because I can admit when I’m wrong — sometimes, sort of, anyway). And yeah, the silver sequined collar/necklace and Project Runway: “Amish Makeover Week” costume were a big part of my enjoyment. But all that would’ve meant zilch if Quentin hadn’t made absolutely urgent his reading of lines like, “Don’t run away, don’t run away/Just tell me that you will stay.” Truly, it felt like he’d taken ownership of not only the Kellster’s words, but every ounce of insecurity and longing that said lyrics had been spun from. Dude has an innate ability to dig past the surface of a song and transmit everything he’s feeling right through the TV screen — and dammit, Harry, Quentin hit some big, impressive glory notes to finish it off, too.
Qaasim Middleton – “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” | Grade: D- | One of my four-year-old twins is convinced that Oscar the Grouch’s real name is “Grunchy the Puppet.” And “grunchy” is the exact word I wrote in my notes while wincing and hiding behind a throw pillow for most of Qaasim’s performance. In theory, the recipient of the Season 14 Judges’ Save had the right idea: Sitting on a stool, breaking out the acoustic guitar, and attempting to bare his soul in the most intimate fashion possible. What Qaasim wound up baring, though, was a laundry list of vocal woes: Flat notes in his lower register on the pre-chorus; a falsetto that sounded closer to gargling Listerine than actual singing; confounding runs that ended with the power and poise of a marathon runner collapsing into a foil poncho. And honestly, I couldn’t tell if he was trying to take the entire verse in a new direction or if he just failed to hit a single note. I’d say J.Lo is more likely to wear mom jeans next Wednesday than Qaasim is to avoid the Bottom 2.
Clark Beckham – “The Trouble With Love Is” | Grade: B+ | I loved Kelly’s advice to Clark about how he’ll be unstoppable once he open his (ridiculously pretty blue) eyes — and also lets go emotionally — because his performance could’ve been dubbed The Two Faces of Clark Beckham. Act One (AKA Everything That Came Before the Bridge) was nicely sung, but lacking any grit or gumption whatsoever. I mean, Clark might as well have been singing about his shower gel or his favorite pair of socks. As he approached the bridge of the song, though, you could see Clark shake his head — almost like an athlete who’s realized he’s down at halftime and needs to get his head in the game. After that, Clark finally got caught up in the undertow of the tune — his guttural howls and daring melodic choices matched by his physical and facial intensity. Rev. Beckham was testifying about the unavoidable clench of romance — and I felt the spirit. That closing note got a little screamy, but it didn’t matter: In that moment of imperfection, the dude may have found his voice. Now let’s get 100% of that next week, yes?
Bottom Two, Competing for the “Idol Fan Save” via Twitter
Daniel Seavey – “Breakaway” | Grade: D- | “Breakway” has been covered multiple times on the Idol stage (most recently by Lazaro Arbos — sorry for reminding you), and the thing is, it’s never, ever worked out well. So you knew from the opening, barely audible “na na nas” that 15-year-old Daniel, a kid who’s always come off as too young and too unseasoned for this type of intense competition, was going to be the tiny fishing boat headed right into the eye of Hurricane Kelly. Stiffer than a starched shirt, a combination of confusion and “Hey, I’m still on TV!” in his eyes, Daniel squeaked and scratched his way through a song that any sane, caring mentor would have dissuaded him from covering in the first place. The good news, though, was that perhaps his complete vocal collapse killed any urge that his fan base had to take it to Twitter and buy him another week of torture?
Rayvon Owen – “Since U Been Gone” | Grade: B+ | Despite Daniel’s disaster, Rayvon was hardly a lock — not until he opened his mouth and delivered his best vocal of the live voting rounds… a stripped-down, mournful and cumulus-cloud-delicate rendition of what everyone knows is a super-fun pop jam. I wish Rayvon hadn’t held the mic quite so close to his mouth on the opening verse — causing a peculiar bit of fuzzy feedback — but for the most part, dude played his part like a sculptor, chipping away at Kelly’s creation and molding it into a new and equally intriguing work. There was so much heartbreak in those bell-clear falsetto runs — and a deep sense of resignation in that final refrain — that I felt like I was meeting Rayvon for the very first time. “Oh, hi there, emotionally plugged-in fella who knows exactly what sounds good on your voice! Pleased to make your acquaintance. Keep this up and we might just have you stay a little longer, K?”
The serious mismatch of the sing-off sent me into a flurry of Twitter insanity because what else do I have to do with my life?
Saved by America’s Tweets: Rayvon (huzzah!)
Should Be Next Week’s Bottom 2: Qaasim, Tyanna (Quassim going home)
Will Be Next Week’s Bottom 2: Qaasim, Rayvon (Quassim going home)
On that note, I turn it over to you! What did you think of Top 9 performance night? Who were your faves? Who’s at risk? Did the right contestant get “Twitter Saved”? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!