Steve Perry! Bobby Bones! A new wig for Katy Perry! All of the stars came out for Sunday’s American Idol, the first half of Season 16’s two-part finale, which gave the Top 3 one last chance to earn viewers’ votes.
Caleb Hutchinson, Gabby Barrett and Maddie Poppe took the stage to debut their brand-new original singles, then delivered encores of their favorite performances from earlier in the season. We also got to (re)enjoy original ditties from Catie Turner, Michelle Sussett, Jonny Brenns and Harper Grace.
I was going to include a disclaimer in this recap about how I’ll be judging the finalists harder in these last two episodes, but after hearing some of the judges’ savage critiques, I guess we’re all taking this more seriously.
ROUND 1: NEW SINGLES
CALEB LEE HUTCHINSON (“Johnny Cash Heart”)
I was nervous when he started early, but was relieved that it didn’t spiral into a full-blown Catie Turner/”Manic Monday” situation. He rebounded well enough, delivering a decent — though, once again, not super exciting — performance of an original song (already climbing the charts!), written by James Slater, Jay DeMarcus and Kat Higgins. I’m not sure I agree with Perry that this was Hutchinson’s worst performance to date, but it certainly wasn’t great.
GABBY BARRETT (“Rivers Deep”)
In her pre-show chat with Bones, Barrett addressed the struggles of being compared to Carrie Underwood, whose style she adapted because she was nervous at the beginning of the competition. Well, there was no sign of those nerves — nor the Underwood vibes I’m used to feeling — during Barrett’s powerful, confident performance of her emotional new single. I saw her in a whole new light tonight, and I liked what I saw.
MADDIE POPPE (“Going Going Gone”)
I’ve always said I saw Poppe as more of a complete package than the other two finalists, and tonight’s powerful performance of her delightful single only solidified my belief in her. Not only does “Going Going Gone” fit her voice like a glove, but she performs it like she’s been doing it for years.
ROUND 2: MOST MEMORABLE PERFORMANCES
CALEB LEE HUTCHINSON (Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes”)
I’m not sure why Hutchinson chose this Hollywood Week performance as his most memorable — all it did was make me want to close my eyes. Sure, his vocals were solid, but that much has been established since Day 1. I’m still waiting for the excitement. Fortunately for Hutchinson, I’m not on the panel; the judges loved this one, with Perry calling it “light years” better than his single.
GABBY BARRETT (Miranda Lambert’s “Little Red Wagon”)
I don’t know what spell Barrett cast on herself ahead of Sunday’s episode, but she’s been on fire all night. This was the kind of solid, high-energy performance you might expect to see on, say, the Billboard Music Awards. (Speaking of which, is anyone else annoyed that NBC decided to air it against tonight’s Idol? No, just me?) Frankly, it’s unbelievable — and a little insulting — that the judges told Barrett she needed to incorporate more “hair flips” into her performances when they didn’t say anything to Hutchinson about amping up his near-comatose excitement level.
MADDIE POPPE (“Don’t Ever Let Your Children Grow Up”)
Don’t mind me, I’m just… uh… cutting onions over here. Seriously, I love that Poppe chose to reprise this original jam. Not only was it the perfect opportunity to remind America what a talented songwriter she is, but it also gave us — arguably — the most all-around impressive vocal performance of the night.
ROUND 3: CONTESTANT’S CHOICE
CALEB LEE HUTCHINSON (Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson’s “Folsom Prison Blues”)
Do I believe that Hutchinson would ever shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die? No. But did I appreciate him giving us a much more upbeat, considerably edgier performance than what we’re used to getting? Absolutely. Lionel Richie took the words right off my keyboard when he told Hutchinson that this was right in his wheelhouse.
GABBY BARRETT (Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”)
Considering Steve f-ing Perry from f-ing Journey told Barrett that her rendition was “the most amazing version [he’s] ever heard,” is there really anything left for little ol’ me to say? I mean, sure, the moment felt a little staged, but Perry wasn’t wrong.
MADDIE POPPE (Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”)
Idol couldn’t have picked a better song to close out tonight’s episode; not only is this song a guaranteed tearjerker, but Poppe’s airy voice melted into it like butter. Perfect choice. Perfect performance. That microphone hit her tooth pretty hard, but I’m not about to discredit her for that.
Your thoughts on Night 1 of the American Idol finale? Cast your votes below, then drop a comment with your predictions for tomorrow’s big reveal.