Things couldn't have been much worse in Dallas than they were in Los Angeles on Tuesday night. After all, it's where "American Idol" found first-season winner Kelly Clarkson, so chances were good that more potential winners could be found in Texas on Wednesday night (January 27), when "How I Met Your Mother" star Neil Patrick Harris and the Jonas Brothers' Joe Jonas ponied up to the memorial Paula Abdul guest-judge spot.
Airport dock worker and father of two Lloyd Thomas, 29, continued the cavalcade of smooth-voiced parents taking their shot this year, with a buttery rumble through Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed," which Simon Cowell loved and Harris liked well enough.
Like the Katy Perry vs. Kara DioGuardi battle on Tuesday night, there was a clear difference of opinion on the panel Wednesday, with Harris frequently expressing Texas-size opinions that clashed with Cowell's, making for some decent drama in an otherwise tame episode.
Kimberly Carver, 26, a schoolteacher who sang a bluesy original, kind of looked like Clarkson and brought a "brilliant" voice, according to Randy Jackson, though Cowell said she was old-fashioned and boring. Harris, of course, begged to differ.
Wednesday night's freak parade of narcissistic sure-things was led by marble-mouth Dexter Ward, an unemployed 20-year-old from Terrell, Texas, whose nose did all the singing on Boyz II Men's "If I Ever Fall in Love Again." Sometimes, though, the ones you are sure will flame out surprise you. Consider 23-year-old actress and former "Barney & Friends" star Erica Rhodes, a grad student who walked in wearing a black leather bondage outfit and cracking a bullwhip. Costumes rarely make the cut, but Rhodes actually showed some skills and lots of Pussycat Dolls-like spunk singing En Vogue's "Free Your Mind" while wielding her weapon of choice.
"I want people to know that 'Barney' kids grow up to be dirty little girls," she said. Cowell appreciated the effort, and DioGuardi liked Rhodes' presence, which paved her way to Hollywood, despite the goofy "Barney" dominatrix shtick.
The night's obligatory medical story was Dave Pittman, 27, of Mountain Home, Arkansas, a lawn-care worker who suffers from Tourette syndrome, which causes him to have involuntary vocal and facial tics. Singing "Bring It on Home to Me" by Sam Cooke, Pittman powered through the soul standard and pleasantly surprised the panel by showing his charm and fortitude, earning him a shot at Hollywood.
Day two brought on Jonas, who got settled in right away on a very good note thanks to the professional-quality stylings of Todrick Hall, 24, an actor who worked alongside former "Idol" winner Fantasia in Broadway's "The Color Purple." Hall sang a snappy original autobiographical R&B tune in which he explained, "Todrick is my name/ And I'm here to play a part in your game/ Hopped a plane, took a train/ Just to claim my 15 minutes of fame."
With lyrical references to William Hung and a pre-emptive tip of the hat to Cowell's bored look, Hall got major props from Jackson, who said he was among the best singers so far this year, while the nasty Brit said the audition was cutesy and his voice was OK but nothing great. Despite his misgivings, Cowell agreed to put Hall through to Hollywood.
The night was relatively light on freak-show theatrics and train wrecks — until neon explosion Vanessa Johnston, a 22-year-old substitute teacher from Waxahachie, Texas, set off a vocal stink bomb with her mannered, shouty take on the Etta James classic "At Last," which Cowell suspected would haunt his nightmares for a long, long time.
Unlike Harris, Jonas offered very little commentary during his brief time on camera, leaving the heavy lifting and cutting remarks to the rest of the panel.
Luckily for him, there was plenty of real talent to spread the golden tickets around to, from perky blond cosmetologist Maegan Wright, 20, of Richardson, Texas, who did a nice, breathy take on Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love," to 16-year-old leukemia sufferer Christian Spear, the final singer of the night.
Her inspiring story of survival — her cancer has been in remission for eight years — culminated with a major-league cover of Etta James' blues ballad "All I Can Do Is Cry," which she sang with a rich voice that impressed Randy and Kara. "I think you're an incredibly brave person, and I like you a lot," Simon told the high-schooler, who became the 31st Lone Star singer to get a golden ticket.
Tuesday's show heads to Denver, where Posh Spice Victoria Beckham does her second go-round behind the table.
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