A couple of things became clear on Wednesday night as the [url id="/news/topics/a/american_idol/"]“American Idol”[/url] top 10 celebrated 50 years of Motown: The night’s mentor, label legend Smokey Robinson, is one of the nicest look-on-the-sunny-side guys in the world, and, more importantly, no one is safe. As if last week’s Grand Ole Opry round didn’t prove that some of this season’s favorites are a bit vulnerable, Motown week practically leveled the playing field.
A pair of singers who were expected to kill it and cement their front-runner status, Lil Rounds and Danny Gokey, got middling to not-great remarks, and the one singer whose over-the-top, pseudo Broadway metal sound seemed least fitting for the soulful smoothness of Motown, Adam Lambert, drew gasps (and the season’s first standing O from judge Kara DioGuardi) with a heartfelt, restrained ballad.
First up was Matt Giraud, who chose Marvin Gaye’s iconic “Let’s Get It On” and gave the tune his unique spin by turning it into a Memphis soul shakedown that was more Al Green than Gaye. Randy Jackson loved it, saying Giraud was now a contender for the top spot, while Kara liked how he started at the piano and then worked the crowd as he came out of his shell a bit.
Paula Abdul praised his “sexy, cool” vibe and said his performance was like wearing a great old, comfortable pair of jeans, and even Simon Cowell gave him props, saying he picked the perfect song and reiterated that he was now one of the front-runners.
Kris Allen also picked a Gaye song, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” strapping on his acoustic guitar for a John Mayer-esque funky folk take with an assist from a trio of onstage backup singers. Kara loved how he avoided both the James Taylor lite rock version and the Gaye original by carving his own unique path. Paula said the song choice was right and his personality is beginning to shine, while Simon called it “smart” but suggested he develop some swagger to show his confidence, encouraging him to be more conceited.
Though there was a debate between Paula and Simon last week as to how Scott MacIntyre should perform, Mac decided to stay behind the piano again for a somewhat stiff New Orleans boogaloo through the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” It proved to be a poor choice, and the judges weren’t shy in their criticism.
Paula praised the addition of a trio of backup singers as they helped mix things up, but the rest of the panel wasn’t buying it, with Simon joking that the song’s lyric “How much more can you take” said it all. He called the “honky-tonk” piano all wrong, said the song choice was “cheap” and the backup singers were a mess. “Week after week, for whatever reason, you are choosing the wrong songs,” Simon told MacIntyre. Randy lamented that it felt like a very “hotel”-style performance and was not risky enough at this point in the competition.
Things did not go so well for Megan Joy (Corkery) either. She again brought her signature quavery jazz-club vocals, this time to Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life,” adding a bit of calypso feel to the tune as she shimmied out past the stage to work the crowd. Randy didn’t love it, calling it a “train wreck” and dubbing the tempo all wrong for Megan’s vocal style. Kara said it was all over the place and suggested that the song overtook the singer, and Simon cut to the chase and called it just plain horrible, speculating that Megan could be in serious trouble.
Anoop Desai gets brownie points for choosing Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ classic ballad “Ooo Baby Baby,” slowing it down and leaning hard on his feathery falsetto for an extra sensual touch. Kara praised him for capably handling a really hard song, and while Simon called it a “great vocal,” he said Desai looked a bit sleepy and lacked showmanship. Randy liked how he brought the croon and swoon but recommended that he “get the party on” again next week.
Michael Sarver promised to take the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” to church with some gritty vocals. He did in fact add a bit of gravel to his usually smooth delivery, along with some gospel fervor, but even Paula couldn’t find anything nice to say about it, calling it old and Las Vegas lounge-y. Simon couldn’t wait for it to end because he said Sarver was screaming and shouting the tune, adding that he thinks the Texas roughneck has no chance of winning the competition. “In the real world, it just isn’t good enough,” Simon said.
As we predicted, it was Lil Rounds’ week to lose , and while she didn’t crash and burn, she might be rethinking her choice of Martha and the Vandellas’ “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave.” At first struggling to keep up with the song’s rapid tempo, Rounds eventually found her pocket and wrapped her powerhouse vocals around the bouncy song to give it some signature Lil attitude.
Randy didn’t love the rushed beginning but said she found her stride by the end, and Kara was all about Lil’s sassy flapper look, even if she didn’t deliver on the diva performance everyone was expecting. “It wasn’t the right song,” Kara said, knocking Rounds for not interpreting the tune more and screaming at times. Paula said Rounds gave the song a fresh sound, and Simon found it to be an authentic tribute, even if the tune didn’t give Rounds a moment that would make her stand out.
And then there was wild card Adam Lambert, who made the gutsy call of the Robinson-penned “The Tracks of My Tears.” After taking Johnny Cash to Marrakech last week , theater veteran Lambert completely switched things up again by closeting the goth-rocker look for a gray suit, a Chris Isaak pompadour and a tender, unplugged take on the classic song.
The restrained, vulnerable cover crescendoed with an extended falsetto wail at the end that drew a standing ovation from Robinson, Motown boss Berry Gordy and Kara. “One of the best performances of the night,” she said simply, though Simon soon corrected her and called it the best performance of the night. The normally acerbic judge, who hated Lambert’s “indulgent” performance the week before, praised his originality and song choice and said, “You, tonight, really have emerged as a star for me.”
It was the Temptations’ “Get Ready” for Danny Gokey, who played it pretty straight, staying true to the song’s up-tempo rhythm, while adding some of his signature gospel growl. Simon called it clumsy and amateurish, Randy said it reminded him of the great Motown icon Levi Stubbs, even if it wasn’t his best performance, and Kara said it was good, not great.
Teen wonder Allison Iraheta closed the show with the Temptations’ rockin’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” grabbing hold of the song and working it like a 40-year-veteran soul belter playing to a packed, sweaty club. “You might be 16, but you’re one of the dopest singers in this whole thing,” Randy enthused. “Oh my god,” Kara added, calling the performance amazing and adding that it sounded like Iraheta had been singing for 400 years. Simon called her a survivor and said it was one of her best performances.
The singers will find out who goes home (or possibly gets the judges’ save) Thursday night (March 26), when Robinson performs along with “Idol” alum Ruben Studdard.
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