The third round of top 36 performances unfolded Tuesday night pretty much like the previous two: Some wannabes just picked the wrongs songs, others blasted up from nowhere and the frontrunners grabbed a few more feathers for their caps.
First the good news: Lil Rounds might be your next American Idol. The night ended with the woman who could be this year's top contender, the 24-year-old mother of three, biting into Mary J. Blige's "Be Without You" and nailing the midtempo inspirational number with strength and confidence, leaving judge Simon Cowell looking a bit stunned.
"Brilliant," was all he could say, with Randy Jackson adding that Lil Rounds is among the best they've found this year, as he gave mad props for her "swagger." The unanimous thumbs up went all the way down the line, with Paula Abdul quipping, "I have the sneaking suspicion we're going to see you for many more Lil Rounds."
(Look back at our "American Idol" live blog to relive last night's performances.)
The night's biggest surprise was Felicia Barton, 26, a stay-at-home mom from Virginia Beach, Virginia, who didn't originally make it to the top 36, but who was called back when Joanna Pacitti was disqualified. Barton was out to prove to the judges that she belonged in the competition, and she nailed it. Wearing a black leather jacket, black spangly top and black jeans, she came out swinging on Alicia Keys' "No One," knocking the vocals out of the park and winning over the crowd in the process.
"Isn't it funny how the universe works," Paula said. "Your talent, your gift is unbelievable. ... I'm so glad we brought you back." Simon liked the performance, though he felt it was a bit "copycat." Randy loved it, and Kara DioGuardi praised Barton's attitude, presence and new sexy look. "I noticed you for the first time tonight, I really noticed you," she said.
The show's first blind contestant, Scott MacIntyre, went old-school with Bruce Hornsby's "Mandolin Rain," initially warbling unevenly through the saccharine ballad, dropping a series of bum notes along the way until hitting a couple of soulful runs near the end. Randy said the vocal wasn't perfect, but that the good parts were really good, and he could really feel the emotion in the performance. "You move mountains when you step on that stage," Kara said, excusing MacIntyre's not-so-great notes by saying even when he's off, he's off with passion.
Calling him "one of our finest," Paula said she couldn't wait to hear MacIntyre get back behind the piano in the next round. Simon blasted the bland song choice while admitting that MacIntyre was growing on him as he appeared to gain confidence, saying he would be "amazed" if MacIntyre didn't advance.
The other pleasant surprise was Ju'Not Joyner, 26, who transformed Plain White T's "Hey There Delilah" into a meditative John Legend-esque soul serenade. Randy loved that Joyner switched up the tune and held back, while Kara loved his smooth, fluid take and encouraged him to really bust it loose next time. Simon said it was better than he expected, but actually wished Joyner had stripped it back even further and found his "moment."
The rest of the performances were a mixed bag. Von Smith opened the night, singing Marvin Gaye's "You're All I Need to Get By," in a quavering, whispery voice that grew stronger as he went on, seemingly shaking off his serious case of nerves. Wearing a baggy gray suit and red T-shirt with matching sneakers, Smith ended on a strong note, busting out some of his signature falsetto.
Jackson said Smith was even better than he remembered him during the Hollywood weeks. Kara praised Smith for coming into his own and delivering a solid performance. Simon said that Smith reminded him of Clay Aiken, which was a good thing, though he added that the resemblance also extended to Smith's "appalling" clothing choices.
Taylor Vaifanua, 17, a high school student from Hurricane, Utah, tried the dramatic ballad "If I Ain't Got You" by Alicia Keys, while rocking black latex tights and an indistinct black, gray and white minidress, bringing a classic, emotional R&B feel to the song. Kara said it's "obvious" that Vaifanua has a voice and talent, but her personality has yet to emerge. Paula Abdul was perplexed by Vaifanua's decision to sing a song she'd already sung during the Hollywood round.
Trying to shake off the nerd tag, Alex Wagner-Trugman, 19, chose Elton John's "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," growling and crooning the verses while bouncing away from the microphone to do a white-boy boogie several times, eventually tossing aside the stand (by accident, he said) and emoting his way through the ballad with a sandpaper and silk edge.
Paula praised him for being an entertaining showman. Simon said that while it was fun watching him, it was no fun listening to his "ridiculous" growling. "You're like a little hamster trying to be a tiger," Simon sniped. "It just was actually a bit stupid."
The news wasn't much better for San Diego's Arianna Afsar, 17, who performed the first ever ABBA song on the show, "The Winner Takes It All," struggling through the first half and then busting out the vocal strength the judges had earlier praised. Simon said there was a "certain irony" to the lyrics because it was "absolutely terrible," and the funereal arrangement did her no favors. "It was your worst performance by a clear mile," he said.
Karaoke hostess Kristen McNamara, 23, went the blues route, with a laid-back cruise ship cover of Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason," accented by half a dozen soul growls and whoops. Kara praised McNamara for being a great singer, but said she would have rather seen a more rocking song. Simon said it just wasn't clear who she was yet, trashing her pink-icing "pageant" dress and gold stilettos.
While all the judges questioned McNamara's not-quite-there fashion choices, it was clear that brash drama machine Nathaniel Marshall (who wants it "so bad," has he mentioned that?), was more than secure in his unique style. In the debut performance of Meat Loaf's power ballad "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" on the show, Marshall brought some "Starlight Express" Broadway sass to the suggestive tune, accenting his smarmy vocals with a "Miami Vice" electric-blue jacket, matching headband, yellow tank top and second-skin black pants.
"Some people will quite like that, the minority," Simon snarked. "The majority probably, like me, thought it was verging on excruciating."
The acerbic judge blasted the "awful" image Marshall brought with his Olivia Newton-John headband. But he added that on the positive side, people will remember the performance and that Marshall was fun. Randy said it was hard to imagine what kind of record Marshall would make as an artist, and Kara suggested he dial down the fun and show a more serious side.
Texan Kendall Beard, 24, went native for "This One's for the Girls" by Martina McBride, smiling her way through the girl-power country anthem while wearing a canary-yellow dress, with what looked like a clutch of dried flowers lashed to her waist. Kara praised Kendall's "big personality" and choice of a country tune, but said the vocals were not great. Paula loved the outfit, which Beard's mother put together. And Simon said that though she picked the right song and was cute, "halfway through, I couldn't wait for it to end."
Also performing was Puerto Rico's Jorge Nuñez, 21, who was earlier told to work on his English pronunciation and distracting dancing. While bravely choosing the potentially cheesy "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" by Elton John, Nuñez did everything the judges asked and delivered a powerful performance of the big ballad. The change did him good, as Paula emotionally praised his hard work with a dialect coach, though Simon reversed field and said perhaps he should sing with an accent, as his voice was very strong. "You were born to sing, that's your thing, that's your gift," Kara said, bringing Nuñez to tears.
The next three contestants will be put through to the top 12 on Wednesday night's (March 4) show. Then the judges will round out the top contenders with their favorites during Thursday night's wild-card show.
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