‘American Idol’ Season Nine Kicks Off With Boston Tearjerkers

Katie Stevens impresses with 'At Last'; cancer survivor Justin Williams returns.

“American Idol” kicked off season nine on Tuesday night with the usual assortment of freaks, geeks and tone-deaf delusional jokers, mixed in with the occasional ringer with a compelling backstory that might actually have a chance in Hollywood.

The intro acknowledged the judging turmoil that has roiled “Idol” since the last season ended in May, alluding to Paula Abdul’s departure and Ellen DeGeneres’ addition to the panel. But there was no mention of Simon Cowell’s announcement on Monday that he would be leaving “Idol” at the end of this season, either because the news broke too late to re-edit the episode or because producers didn’t want to draw attention to it.

With DeGeneres not suiting up until the Hollywood round airs, the season premiere featured the first of a string of celebrity judges, former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham.

(Head over to the Newsroom for Jim Cantiello’s in-depth “Idol” recap.)

Let’s start with the train wrecks. There was a contestant who spoke to Abdul even though she wasn’t there, another who insisted on shouting “Holla!” incessantly when he wasn’t murdering Britney’s “Womanizer,” an anime nut and the requisite goofy cowboys. The sideshow parade also included a soulful Rhode Island native who got the “Jersey Shore” paisan treatment from Kara, an ’80s-metal dude who murdered a Cascada song and a spiritual seeker who thought he channeled both Elton John and Chris Brown.

And then there was 16-year-old Maddy Curtis, the ninth of a dozen children from Bluemont, Virginia, who impressed the judges with her take on Leonard Cohen’s classic ballad “Hallelujah” and who likely drew tears from viewers with the touching story of her three siblings with Down syndrome.

While the girls definitely had the advantage in Beantown, scruffy 24-year-old New York waiter Luke Shaffer made an impression with Secondhand Serenade’s “Fall for You.” Clark Kent-looking unemployed hometown musician Andrew Fenton mostly just annoyed the judges with a Harry Connick-esque take on the rock standard “House of the Rising Sun” and his endless complaining about how long he had to wait for his audition. Diva-in-training Lisa Olivero, 24, the singing waitress with the Massachusetts twang, came in very confident and seemed like a potential winner, but was DOA with her painfully flat take on Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love.”

Boston is home to the prestigious Berklee College of Music, which producers hoped might bring some potential stars. One of them was Berklee student Ashley Rodriguez, 21, who killed it with Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You.” Kara loved her look and voice and predicted Rodriguez would do well. Simon added, “I think you may have ‘it.’ ”

The night’s requisite rocker was gap-toothed drummer Tyler Grady, 19, who charmed the ladies on the panel with a goofily soulful take on Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” and amused the men with the story of how he broke his wrists after falling out of a tree. On day two, regular-guy actor Mike Davis, 18, who describes the skyline to tourists on a boat called Codzilla, made it to Hollywood with a decent run through the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” even though Randy was not impressed.

After the show aired a touching story about her Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother, 16-year-old Katie Stevens impressed with a strong, husky version of the audition staple “At Last” by Etta James. Charming 27-year-old cancer survivor Justin Williams of Utah made it through with his Bublé-style take on “Feeling Good.” Producers didn’t mention that Williams made it to Hollywood last year and was part of the vaunted “White Chocolate” group alongside Matt Giraud and Kris Allen.

As usual, the editors left a corker for last, with New York good-girl Leah Laurenti, 22, who ended the episode with a strong, jazzy cover of “Blue Skies,” made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. According to Randy, hers was one of the best auditions he saw in Boston, where 32 singers were sent to Hollywood.

As for Beckham, the former girl-group singer made a soft impression in her appearance on the show, offering positive comments on the singers’ personalities and clothes and timidly stirring things up with Cowell at one point over his eye-rolls. But mostly, she stared wide-eyed at the contestants and let the other judges do the heavy lifting.

Next up: Mary J. Blige gives her opinion in Atlanta on Wednesday (January 13) night.

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