From Tina Turner’s arena tours to the single guitarist strumming on a subway platform, the music should always be the star of the show.
Such is the case with Matthew Kahler, an Atlanta mainstay and legendary storyteller, musician and artist. I’m lucky to call him a friend, and now, marking our first in a “listening experience” series, Matthew will be performing for 50 eager attendees at Studioplex Atlanta this Saturday night. (read more)
Evangelicals rejoice! “Idol” led its broadcast with its resident Bible page-turner - and sported, as so many programs do now, both hashtags and contestant handles from the Twitters. The remaining nine contestants, helped on by mentor Stevie Nicks, did a bang-up job tonight. Here goes:
Colton Dixon (“Everything” - by Lifehouse) For sure, Colton’s faith is stepping in front of himself as a performer, and I now understand why producers had been (unsuccessfully) trying to back him off of mentioning it so much. Having said that, a “Christian Rock” American Idol would be a first, and not out of the realm of possibility. Still, the front end of the “worship” song was flat and untethered; really pretty bad, actually, the rest of the way, too. He was off-key most of the time and probably felt the song more than we did. The judges were SO off with their praise; Simon would have roundly panned that performance. Grade: D
Skylar Laine (“Gunpowder & Lead” - by Miranda Lambert) Skylar was able to stay in her wheelhouse with this country joint, but the choice was a bit indulgent in that it didn’t show any new territory with her vocals. She’s a good entertainer, there’s no doubt about that, especially following the boring and uninspired Colton. It was a fun ditty, though, if uninteresting. Grade: B-
Heejun Han (“A Song for You” - Donnie Hathaway) A newly serious Heejun hit the stage with the oft-covered, classic tune. The Asian Michael Bolton was tonally back on target, but he still irritates me with terrible - I mean awful - diction. But this was quite a week-to-week comeback from the train wreck he had with “My Life” last week. I thought it was good but I’m still checked out on Heejun from last week’s awful Billy Joel song. Seacrest was right: “Which Heejun are we gonna get?” Grade: B
Hollie Cavanagh (“Jesus Take the Wheel” - Carrie Underwood) Really personal moment with Stevie Nicks here - she lost her mother recently and urged Hollie to sing from her heart - and it visibly moved both of them. There’s something about this girl I can’t put my finger on - she’s gorgeous and obviously can sing. But her lower register, and possibly her nerves, get the better of her, as they did this week and last. Grade: B-
DeAndre Brackensick (“Sometimes I Cry” - Eric Benet) I brought the same baggage in this week with DeAndre as I did with Heejun, with basically the same impressions. The falsetto is just… exhausting. I’m sure it makes many of the ladies swoon, but I don’t get it. Again, the judges are standing for him and they are just totally off. Prince’s annoying affect is safe - for now. Grade: C
Jessica Sanchez (“Sweet Dreams” - Beyonce) You can really see the technician in this girl - very controlled and disciplined. Nice job on this song, even though I think the choice itself was a bit boring. I think she was going for nuanced, but it was not the best choice for that. Still, Randy was right in her “resolve” in turning the song into a ballad and being so deliberate each week. Well done, but there’s better stuff coming from her in later weeks. Grade: B+
Phil Phillips (“Still Rainin’” - Jonny Lang) Are we looking at the next member of Fleetwood Mac? Stevie Nicks basically offered it him, so who knows. Looking dapper in a jacket, Phil is always his own man on that stage, which is to be commended. And I agree that covering Jonny was a great choice, but I wouldn’t have chosen that song. He’s great though, even singing a one-dimensional tune. Grade: B
Joshua Ledet (“Without You” - Mariah Carey) Again, a consistent performer and looking dapper just like Phil. He really pulled the emotion out of the song - no small task given the material. A great arrangement with a terrific, emotional delivery. I guess I’m a bit partial to gospel, so take that with a grain. But he did a great job. JLo called Joshua a “phenom,” and she’s right. Grade: A-
Elise Testone (“Whole Lotta Love” - Led Zepplin) Part of the challenge of this competition is to win over folks with performances week-over-week, which is no small task in the age of small attention spans. Elise won over a ton of fans this week with this cover - unbelievable. She made a very difficult song look effortless - by far, by a freakin’ mile, the best of the night (sorry Joshua). This was the best of the season so far. She looked great, too. Grade: A
Predicted bottom three: Colton, Hollie, DeAndre (possibly Heejun as a wildcard)
JLo fashion grade: once again, A. Understated and unfussy. We dig that.
With the catalog of Billy Joel week hitting American Idol’s Top 10, we must resist the temptation to use “car wreck” metaphors to describe bad performances (see DeAndre, below). Tackling Billy Joel is no small undertaking; as someone who performed “New York State of Mind” way back in the day, he’s got complex melodies and iconic phrasing. Still, his songs offer great material for everyone - and it showed in many cases. Here is my take (in order of appearance):
DeAndre Brackensick - “Only the Good Die Young” Is MilliVanilli trending yet? (Answer: yes.) The judges are smoking the funny stuff on this one - DeAndre was terrible. DeAndre danced like Debbie Gibson and sang about as well, too. Seems like a sweet kid, but not in the top tier. Will be in the bottom three tomorrow night. Grade: D+
Erica Van Pelt - “New York State of Mind” F*cking HOT. Dig the new look, too. We’ll wait and see how the rest of the folks did, but one of the best of the night. Randy’s note about going for runs is right, too, in that she’s got terrific phrasing and is perhaps pulling some punches for later. JLo’s note about her being more expressive was great as well. This is a tough song to cover and she did it up nice. Grade: A-
Joshua Ledet - “She’s Got a Way” As Randy said, “never feel defeated” when you have talent like this. Really strange arrangement actually; I’ve been a fan of Joshua since the beginning, but I feel like this was an opportunity for subtlety that he didn’t take. I’m a huge gospel fan, too, but I really connected with what JLo said about the lyric - we as singers are obliged to tell the story, not just sing the song well. Decent job. He should get through to next week. Grade: B
Skylar Laine - “Shameless” Forget the song: I’d still like to know who the twink was in the trucker cap at the open. But I digress… Terrible style change fashion-wise - totally out of touch with her country roots. The song felt screechy to me and not all that interesting, and was flat at the front end. It leant itself to the country vibe, given the other covers of the song in that vein, but not delivered all that well. Grade: C+
Elise Testone - “Vienna” Bluesy, stellar, yummy. Talk about being rewarded for sticking to your guns… These mentors, largely, don’t know what the shit they’re talking about. Let’s not forget that they *almost steered her away from this song, and I still think - after a standing ovation from the judges - she may not garner boffo votes because of it. Still, one of the best of the nights and mad props for making an unfamiliar song personal and emotional. “I’m so happy for you! I just want to shake you and squeeze you.” Another nod to VAS from JLo. We appreciate your support of BentBlog and The Daily Slap. Best arrangement of the season thus far, too. Well done. Grade: A
Phil Phillips - “Movin’ Out” Everyone is staying true to themselves tonight - and it’s one of the takeaways from the evening. Excellent job on this joint. Phil rebuked the mentors and did a great job putting his spin on the song - and stayed on his mark style-wise. I might break from the pack a bit and say that he changed it up a bit too much for me. The song has so much groove in it already… some of it wasn’t needed. He can keep on being gray - it looks great on him. Grade: A-
Hollie Cavanaugh - “Honesty” Whoever dressed Hollie last week should be pounding the pavement for a new job this week. Regardless, she’s a bit of a frump so packaging that great voice seems like a challenge. Much better this week though, which gave her a leg up on a terrible arrangement. The performance did not survive that arrangement though, and it was hard to tell if it was her phrasing or what - but it wasn’t her best job. Grade: D+
Heejun Han - “My Life” Whoever is advising this kid, if anyone, should be on the street with last week’s dresser for Hollie. Bad Karaoke. Sharp, flat, bad diction, terrible arrangement. Entertaining doesn’t walk the dog in a singing competition - the judges were too kind. In danger of going home tomorrow. Grade: F
Jessica Sanchez - “Everybody Has a Dream” Once again, stellar. What can you say about a 16-year-old who sings like an established diva? “It takes consistency to win. You have a moment every time you step on that stage.” Randy was right, the mentors and the stylists did a great job all the way around. Fantastic. I’d only caution here that she’s so young, so unseasoned, that it might eventually catch up to her in terms of telling stories week after week. Again, I’m speechless with this budding talent. Stop the presses and give her a contract, now. Grade: A
Colton Dixon - “Piano Man” This song is ready to made as a cover for the radio. Period. Handsome and confident, he sang the song right in his wheelhouse. My only quibble here is that he squeezed his vocals a few too many times; where that technique should be the “color” of a performance, he went to it too many times. Still, Randy was right, the arrangement was simple and clean. “God use me” was tacky for those atheists among us; he apparently ignored producers’ plea to tone it down. Still, he’ll sail through. Grade: B+
Top performances: Phil, Jessica, Elise and EVP.
Predicted bottom three: DeAndre, Hollie and Skylar.
Other notes: JLo fashions were spot-on tonight. Grade: A. Plain, uncomplicated and beautiful. The mentors should, in large part, take a step back because they are really screwing up the contestants. Stop stepping in front of the performers and leading them down wrong paths.
See you tomorrow for results! This post also appears on BentBlog.com - make sure to check it out. - WP
Update: Well… I got one of three correct. And I meant to change my bottom-three prediction to Heejun, but I got distracted. Erica Van Pelt is the one who ended up excused from the competish - the wrong choice in my view. She’s a talented singer who didn’t have time to find herself. But like in all past years, one can never predict what America will do. Apparently EVP rejected JLo’s “unbalanced” comments in post-judging interviews. She’ll go on the summer tour, though.
The connection is simple: the Syndrome, explained here, affects those of us who thinks someone is so cute it’s aggravating – to the point you want to pinch, bite, squeeze, punch or slap the snot out of them in protest.
JLo reacted thusly out of her VAS when she evaluated our first singer, Joshua Ledet, because she enjoyed his performance so much. I’ll post the video as soon as it’s up. Speaking of Joshua, let’s deep dive into the performances:
Joshua Ledet He werked that Stevie song, brought us back to church and, with help from ace mentor Mary J. Blige, he hooked in to the driving beat. Well done. He’s about as girly as Jacob Lusk was last season.
Elise Testone This girl can sing… but “I’m Your Baby Tonight” was totally the wrong song for her – as was “Greatest Love,” her original choice. She seemed visibly upset about her performance and I can see why.
Jermaine “Gentle Giant” Jones Definitely evocative of Ruben Studdard – perhaps a better singer with a less-tubby charisma. “I Love You,” though, I don’t think is gonna do him any favors in moving him ahead in the competition. A snoozer.
Erica Van Pelt aka “EVP” “I Believe in You and Me” was a bad arrangement sung by a fantastic singer. I was surprised by her presence with such a huge song. Whitney is a monster to tackle for any singer, and given what she had to work with she did a good job. She just seemed to be way more free and “comfortable” than Elise Testone. JLo was right in that she was playing it safe with her phrasing and delivery.
Colton Dixon Given the fact that he’s out of his genre, big time, he was tonally on point and actually pretty in touch with the song. Randy was right about the notes flat and sharp – but he created an emotionally hooked-in “rock ballad” out of a Stevie classic. He’s pretty darn cute, too, qualifying for the evening’s Idol Slap Derby.
Shannon Magrane I get annoyed when I have to wait for singers to get out of their lower registers for the song to become interesting. “I Have Nothing” really did have nothing, though, even when she emerged from the head-voice doldrums. Very karaoke and pretty awful. Next. (PS: could this volleyball player have looked any more gargantuan next to Ryan?) Bad song choice for such a young girl.
DeAndre Brackensick We were thankfully spared DeAndre’s gratuitous falsetto, and with “Master Blaster” he definitely showed a reggae funk that was new to us. But it was bland and not nearly as good as the (frequently cheerleading) panel said it was.
Skylar Laine This girl is one to watch – she was out of her element and she still did up “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” with some moxie. JLo was spot-on when she criticized the front half of the song; the second half was unrecognizable compared to the first. Very well done, as expected.
Heejun Han “All is Fair” was a tale of two performers – one with normally gorgeous tone (painfully sharp in one spot) and terrible diction. He doesn’t close his “t”s and other of those pesky consonants. The “Hugger in Chief” did a decent job but I don’t think he’s gonna go far, despite the fact that we love the goofballs.
Hollie Cavanagh Lacking in presence but burying the needle on cute, Hollie tackled “All the Man that I Need” and I gotta say I didn’t dig it as much as the panel did. Parts of it were good, other parts, “meh.”
Jeremy Rosado Always doing too many runs with a voice that rivals many of the others, Jeremy’s “Ribbon in the Sky” was too breathy, and lacked control and gravitas. Randy was right to note that he didn’t believe it.
Jessica Sanchez Flawless. Definitely a leading contender, especially since “I Will Always Love You” is one of the most iconic songs in the world to cover. I definitely don’t like the early coronation from the judges, though. Steven Tyler’s “you may be the one” is just lame. Just let it be a great performance and don’t pressure this young girl too much.
Phil Phillips “Superstitious” was the best of the evening. Driving, percussive, tonally perfect – and delivered by the evening’s hands-down Slap. He’s yummy, entertaining and a fantastic singer. His charisma is natural and his confidence is breezy. This guy will make records, period. The most refreshing thing about him? He’s ALWAYS dressed-down casual, and speaking as a writer who works in his jammie pants, I LOVE that. More, please.
Predicted bottom gal and guy: Elise Testone & Jeremy Rosado (possible wild card for bottom dwellers goes to Shannon Magrane) Best performances of the night: Phil Phillips & Jessica Sanchez JLo fashion grade: A Normally a train wreck, this blogger loved the dressed-down look. Keep it up, Jenny.
Oh and Joshua, just remember: that hand movement is not what you said it was. It is called “The Stabilizer.” The record has been set straight. Writer’s note: this blog will also appear on BentBlog.com. Stay tuned!
A major revamp of wp.com is underway. Check back in late January for updates to all tabs, including more photos, article clips, video links and much more. I’ll have announcements on books projects, photos and much, much more.