It was good to be home on the big American Idol stage. But there was no small stage in the round with a red room above. This was a serious stage with audience members all over the place--above the stage, to the side, up high, and there were three chairs randomly flanking either side of the judges' circle.
Fresh off the Oscars, Ryan Seacrest was bright-eyed and chatted it up with Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler. We learned that Randy calls Season 10 "The Remix," Jenny from the Block isn't afraid to wear faux jewelry, and Ryan gave Steven an American Idol logo on a stick to put over his mouth if he curses. No worries, the bubble was made large enough for the rocker's signature lips.
The theme of the night was essentially no theme--the Idols got to pick any song they wanted. America would vote for the Top 5 guys and Top 5 girls, and then the judges would round out the finalists with their wildcard selections. And, for the first time ever, voting was introduced right here on AmericanIdol.com. Did you vote?!
Having the tough job of kicking off the very first performance for America's votes was Clint Jun Gamboa, but as an energetic karaoke bar host, he had no problem getting the crowd going. He sang the upbeat Stevie Wonder song "Superstition" which has been performed on this Idol stage many times before by RJ Helton, Bucky Covington, Ricky Braddy, Siobhan Magnus, and Stevie Wonder himself. Clint sounded good and I loved the electrifying colors on the stage, but I don't know if this was his best performance. Steven thought it was beautiful and brilliant. Jennifer noticed that Clint had jitters, but she didn't think they affected his performance. Randy complimented Jun Bug saying, "There's no karaoke singer in the world that has that kind of vocal talent. This is a singing competition and that was brilliant." The night was off to a good start!
Jovany Barreto took on another popular Idol song, Edwin McCain's "I'll Be." There's no denying that this ship builder can sing, but was it good enough to be sent to the finals? Although the audience members on the floor are now in seats, they still swayed their arms. Steven sure thought so, he exclaimed, "Holy Shipyard!" Jennifer thought this was a good first impression, but Randy thought it was just okay and kind of karaoke. However, he did like the modulation in Jovany's voice. Jovany was hoping to have Randy's backing based on their Louisiana roots, but Randy said he's gotta be tough on his homeboy.
Another Louisiana native took the stage. Jordan Dorsey had an interesting choice with Usher's "OMG." That song is auto-tuned, so it's an unusual choice for a singer to show off his vocals. He could have had a moment if he slowed it down and turned it into a ballad, but Jordan decided to keep it high-energy and really showcase his dance moves. At one point he took off his jacket, revealing a royal purple shirt to channel Justin Bieber. He ended by dropping to his knees (I hope he was wearing knee pads) and shooting one arm up in the air. Steven said it wasn't "OMG over-the-top for me." Jennifer reminded Jordan that what she loves about him is his soft R&B Nat King Cole vibe, and this didn't showcase that. Randy said that it's a cool song but Jordan didn't bring anything exciting to it. Although I appreciated Jordan's energy and stage presence, this was a risky move at this do-or-die round of the competition.
Brett Loewenstern channeled his fiery locks with The Doors' "Light My Fire." He shook out his nicely diffused ringlets over and over. His vocals may not have been out of this world, but you can always count on Brett for a fun, fresh performance. Steven said Brett was on fire. Jennifer observed, "It was like more hair tossing than me and Beyonce put together in the past 10 years." HAHA! Hey, if you've got it, toss it. Randy noticed some pitch problems but appreciated that Brett was bold and fun. After Ryan read Brett's voting numbers, Brett scurried off the stage. Ryan called him back and Brett thought it was for a hug. He's cute.
Another rocking performance came from James Durbin, the first contestant to perform a Judas Priest song on American Idol. James took on "You've Got Another Thing Coming" and the performance was like a rock concert. He knows how to position himself on the stage for good camera close-ups, and I like the way he looks without his bandana around his head. Jennifer was clapping in her chair like a happy cheerleader, but I imagine Judas Priest isn't something on rotation in her mp3 player. James dropped to his knees as he sang and ended his performance with a rock star jump and rock 'n roll hand signs. Steven said an expletive and that James is "crazy good. I love it that you're over the top." Jennifer likes that he's an organic performer. Randy wanted all the other contestants to take note that this is how you do it, and he was glad James didn't overuse his high screaming voice.
Robbie Rosen changed the mood from rock 'n roll to love songs with Sarah McLachlan's "Angel." When I transcribed his bio for the website, he listed this as his dream song to perform on Idol, so I'm glad he didn't wait around and miss the opportunity. He changed up the song a little bit from the original, and it seemed like less of a tear jerker. Every time I hear Sarah's version I want to cry because I think of City of Angels and animal cruelty. Steven told Robbie, "You can sing a ballad like nobody's business." Jennifer likes that Robbie tells stories with his songs. Randy didn't think this was a great performance because it was pitchy, dawg.
Baby lock 'em doors and turn the lights down low, it's time for Scotty McCreery! Singing John Michael Montgomery's "Letters From Home," he seemed really comfortable up there for a teen--or anyone! Country music may not be your thing, but you can't deny his soothing vocals. Steven didn't think there was a better song that Scotty could have picked. Jennifer summed it up by saying, "There are some people who are just born to do something. You were born to sing country music." Randy said he's a big fan and that he loves the throwback country vibe and the lowness of Scotty's voice.
We went from the deepest voice to the highest voice when Stefano Langone followed Scotty with Bruno Mars' "Just The Way You Are." Bruno Mars was popular during Hollywood Group night, and last night on my ride home I heard Grenade three times on three different stations back-to-back-to-back. I liked that Stefano went with a current hit to show that he can be on the radio now days, but he hit a rough note. Jennifer was clapping in her seat until he went for that super high note, but that didn't stop the judges from giving him positive feedback. Steven loved it. Jennifer said he's consistent, natural, good, and a beast. Randy commented that all three judges were rocking out like they were at a concert and shouted, "This kid could be on the radio right now!" When Ryan asked Stefano who he was dedicating that song too, and Stefano skirted the real question by saying it was for all the ladies out there.
During Nashville auditions, we only heard a split-second of Paul McDonald's version of "Maggie May." This time he gave us the whole Rod Stewart song which suited his vocals nicely. Although he traded in his sparkly rose-embroidered suit for a sleek all-black get-up, Paul's pearly whites lit up the already bright stage. Paul has a unique way of waving his left hand around as he sings, and it's kind of adorable. I believe it's just that this guitar player doesn't know what to do with his free hand quite yet. The judges liked this "quirky" singer and Steven said, "You got a real character about your voice and I love that." Jennifer also loved the character of his movement and his electrifying smile. Randy remarked, "You are just so unique and different from anything we've had on the show."
Jacob Lusk looked really good in a fancy suit for his performance of "A House Is Not A Home." Some of the most talented singers on American Idol have taken on this song--Tamyra Gray, Ruben Studdard, Anwar Robinson, and Elliott Yamin--and Jacob performed a version worthy of being listed among those names. Personally, Tamyra's version always seemed most memorable to me, and I think people will be talking about Jacob's for a while too. He emoted like always when he sang, and he reached for notes as high as the audience members in the nose bleed seats above the stage. Steven Tyler believed that divine intervention brought Jacob to American Idol, and that to hear a voice like that today is unbelievable. He even shared, "I'm honored to be in your presence. You make me cry when you sing." Jennifer thought this is what is so great about American Idol, and she gave me chills when she remarked, "Luther Vandross is gone, but now we have you." Randy believes that Luther would be proud of Jacob's performance, and that there's nothing Jacob can't sing. (What about the phonebook, Randy?)
Closing out the night was Mr. Casey Abrams with Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You." The song is well matched for Casey's growly voice and Screamin' Jay's personality is as over-the-top as Casey's. He reached from deep within as he pulled out notes during the song...no wonder he had a stomach ache this week! He used the stage well, too. Steven said this is as good as it gets, and Jennifer affirmed what Casey wanted to prove--that he's sexy. (I guess if you like a lot of facial hair). I think he looks like a grown-up, hairy version of Luke from Modern Family. Randy loved how Casey transformed into the spirit of the song and shouted, "More, more, more! Yes, yes, yes!" I'll have what he's having!
The first episode was off to a great start. I liked that so many of the contestants weren't afraid to move around the stage. Also, it was nice to hear some artists' songs we don't often get on Idol. Which five do you think America will vote through? Sound off in the forums. Next up, the Top 12 girls take the stage to perform for you.