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!