The Voice Live Playoffs (Night 1) Recap: How Great They Art!

Will somebody second a motion to extend Season 8 of The Voice through the Fourth of July?

No, this is not a damning commentary about NBC’s summer programming plans (or the violent allergic reaction I have to America’s Got Talent).

It’s just that Night 1 of the Season 8 Live Playoffs — featuring the 10 singers who collectively make up Teams Blake and Pharrell — was so indisputably terrific that it seems a damn shame a full 20 percent of ’em are fated to receive the Marie Antoinette treatment on Wednesday’s results telecast.

Heck, I’d even accept a Friday-night series from mid-June ’til Labor Day that allows every premature evictee to just take the stage and jam out — without having to endure Adam Levine throwing subtle shade, then declaring in the most unconvincing and smarmy way ever, “But I don’t know what I’m talking about!”

But enough about that Maroon 5 chump! Let’s cut directly to my letter grades and predictions for tonight’s performances:

TEAM BLAKE: Sarah Potenza — “Free Bird” — Grade: B+ | I didn’t love that the last third of Sarah’s Lynyrd Skynyrd cover found her hollerating without much purpose over The Voice band’s jam session, but that was more an arrangement issue than a performance one. (With such limited time on stage, there wasn’t enough buildup to justify the abandoning of melody.) Nevertheless, the way Sarah used her smokey, supple instrument to bring alive the lyrics hinted that she might turn out to be one of this season’s best storytellers. The way she phrased the “would you still remember me?” in the opening line alone was chill-inducing. (And whatever the result of the public vote, my answer to her question is a resounding “yes!”)

TEAM PHARRELL: Caitlin Caporale — “Best Thing I Never Had” — Grade: B+ | Caitlin’s got the kind of range and accuracy that might even make Beyoncé herself think, “It’s time to replace this chick with Michelle Williams.” The one thing she’s still missing, though — and which Pharrell hinted at in her rehearsal package — is the ability to convey a distinctive point of view in her singing. There were moments in the pre-chorus where Caitlin began to move me with emotion rather than merely impress me with her technical prowess, but that ratio will need to be better balanced — and quickly — if she wants to avoid an early exit.

TEAM BLAKE: Hannah Kirby — “I Feel the Earth Move” — Grade: B- | “Hannah is possessed by the song she’s singing!” declared Blake — and the hippie-chick’s physical abandon during her Carole King cover was Exhibit A in her coach’s testimony. Unfortunately, though, that loosey-goosiness crept into her vocals about midway through the number — resulting in ad-libs that didn’t quite land pitch-wise, and too often sounded like a whole lot of shouting. WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS SHOUTING AT ME, HANNAH? ALL-CAPS DOES NOT NECESSARILY EQUAL EMOTION!

TEAM PHARRELL: Lowell Oakley — “Jealous” — Grade: B- | Lowell was lucky to survive the inexplicably/maniacal laugh he threw into his performance during the Knockout Rounds, and that knowledge seemed to haunt him throughout his cover of a Nick Jonas jam (one that was performed epically just last season by Chris Jamison). You could practically see the gears turning in Lowell’s mind machine — “Don’t do anything goofy! Stick to the game plan!” — and it sucked the sexiness and swagger right out of the song. Dude still has a perfectly pretty voice (albeit not much of a falsetto), but he’s still too green for this kind of national platform.

TEAM PHARRELL: Mia Z — “Ain’t No Sunshine” — Grade: A | Carson Daly opened the episode by promising “stripped-down” performances all night — and while I’m not sure that was an entirely accurate claim, it certainly applied to the sparse, bass-heavy arrangement of Mia’s number. And thanks be to Pharrell for that decision, since it allowed us all to fall under the spell of the 16-year-old’s effortlessly slinky stylings and raspy-cool tone. When four-time winning coach Blake Shelton tells you you’re the one contestant he wishes he could poach for his own team, you know you’re doing something pretty remarkable.

TEAM PHARRELL: Koryn Hawthorne — “How Great Thou Art” — Grade: B | Adam was right in pointing out Koryn’s obvious nervousness at the start of her performance — I honestly wasn’t sure if she was serving deliberate vibrato or just a terrified tremble. But as she marched forward with her hymnal, I heard less and less inexperience — and was able to focus more on Koryn’s husky tone and muscular delivery. She may have overshot a tad when attempting a Beyonce-esque throw-down on the final refrain, but the standing ovation from her coach and Xtina might tip the scales with voters and give her a shot at the Top 12.

TEAM BLAKE: Corey Kent White — “To Make You Feel My Love” — Grade: A- | Corey’s one of those troubadours with a tendency to throw away the ends of certain phrases, but that possibly bad habit added to the earnest, confessional vibe of his Bob Dylan cover tonight. Some credit has to go to Blake for such an astute song choice — superhot guy + big romantic declaration + sole country moment = guaranteed votes — but Corey knows exactly where to go big and where to let his tone crumble under the weight of his emotions. Yeah, he’s got to watch his pitch when he hits the tippy top of his range (and admittedly, the final note was a bum one), but no way he’s not part of the Season 8 Top 12.

TEAM BLAKE: Brooke Adee — “Love Me Like You Do” — Grade: C | Poor Brooke may be the first Voice contestant in recent memory to get harsh-ish comments from more than one coach during a voting-rounds scenario — but unfortunately, I understood Xtina and Adam’s criticisms. Brooke went flatter than unleavened bread during some of the low notes on the chorus, and as the Lady Aguilera pointed out, the teen’s “focus face” kept the emotional aspect of the performance a little chilly, too.

TEAM BLAKE: Meghan Linsey — “Love Runs Out” — Grade: C+ | The coaches seemed particularly elated with the usually spot-on Meghan, but to my ears, this performance was almost as disastrous as the clumsy silhouette and baffling bib of Meghan’s outfit — and pushed the Nashville vet’s voice to the point of sounding haggard and screamy. (The attempted glory note on “for diamonds for dust” at the end of the bridge was particularly wince-inducing.) Sure, there were moments on the chorus where the raw power of Megan’s instrument proved dazzling, but she also seemed a smidge behind the beat for the entire opening verse. Having opened for Blake a few years back won’t hurt if she’s one of her coach’s Bottom 3, but she’ll have to avoid a repeat of this stumble if she doesn’t want her his love to run out, too.

TEAM PHARRELL: Sawyer Fredericks — “Trouble” — Grade: A- | Those inescapable ads for It Follows have nothing on Sawyer — because this just-turned 16-year-old’s ability to convey adult-level emotions in a song is legitimately spooky. I mean, normally, I’d stamp a “no bueno” on a babyfaced teen ripping into a lyric like, “I’ve been saaaaaved by a woman.” But the dirt-road grit and sly smile Sawyer added to Ray Lamontagne’s chorus disarmed me completely. It’s like the hat-loving teen’s vocal cords are being haunted by some southern blues-rocker who expired a half a century ago without getting properly discovered — and all that heartache and longing are being channeled through a still slightly nervous face of a small-town kid from upstate New York. I’d like to see Pharrell encourage Sawyer to pick slightly less predictable fare — “Trouble” has been done to death on reality singing competitions, and therefore lacked the boom-boom-pow of his “Man of Constant Sorrow” Blind Audition — but nothing too crazy. I mean, we don’t want Sawyer getting derailed from his dream on account of being forced to sing will.i.am or Katy Perry, do we?

Should advance from Team Blake: Sarah, Corey, Meghan (Meghan based on past potential)
Will advance from Team Blake: Hannah, Corey, Meghan

Should advance from Team Pharrell: Sawyer, Mia, Caitlin
Will advance from Team Pharrell: Sawyer, Mia, Koryn

OK, your turn. What did you think of Night 1 of the Season 8 Live Playoffs? Do you wish we weren’t losing so many singers (who are only just beginning to prove themselves) so soon? Who were your faves? Who would you not mind losing? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!


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