The “American Idol” season-nine top 12 made it to the big stage Tuesday night (March 16) to take on the songs of the Rolling Stones. And, in a wakeup call on the first night of mixed-gender competition, the women served notice that they really are the ones to beat this year as Siobhan Magnus drew more raves and Crystal Bowersox had yet another solid performance.
Brawny football-player-turned-singer Michael Lynche was up first, singing the appropriately sexy “Miss You,” playing it like a Sam Cooke-style soul burner, complete with plenty of falsetto whoops and hollers and vigorous hand gestures.
Randy Jackson and Ellen DeGeneres thought it continued Lynche’s winning ways and provided a nice kickoff to the night. Kara DioGuardi thought Michael delivered on the swagger inherent in the Stones’ live show, and Simon Cowell praised him for his confidence but thought the dancing was a bit “corny” at times.
Knoxville, Tennessee, native Didi Benami went torchy with “Play With Fire,” singing the song as a dark jazz ballad while slinking across the big stage and emoting into the camera.
Kara thought the eeriness of the song combined with the sweetness of Benami’s voice was a nice mixture. “For the first time for me in weeks, Didi, you’re on fire,” Randy said. Cowell thought the tune began to show what kind of artist Benami could be.
Casey James rocked out “It’s All Over Now,” playing a Dixie-fried boogie take on the tune while occasionally strumming an electric guitar and tossing his golden locks at all the right moments.
After telling him several weeks ago to stop trying to be a rock star, Kara said James finally was a rock star in his best performance yet. But Simon said, despite looking great and singing well, it felt more like an audition that didn’t really make use of the big stage. “You’ve got to push yourself,” he said. “Not just be a guy standing in the middle of the stage playing the guitar. It has to be more than that. … Just be a star.”
Another Texas kid, Lacey Brown, went with an orchestral version of 1967′s “Ruby Tuesday” complete with a string quartet. She sang in her coquettish 1960s pixie pop voice, seated on the edge of the stage while tweaking the melody just enough to make it her own.
Cowell said Brown’s vocals are strong but that she performs like an actress and overthinks it too much. Ellen didn’t like how she sat down during the most uptempo bits and felt it was a bit sleepy.
Needing to get back into his early groove, Andrew Garcia let it bleed with “Gimme Shelter,” laying on some gritty Cee-Lo-like soul as he awkwardly paced across the front of the stage with the mic stand while hitting a series of big notes at the end.
For Randy it was way pitchy, while Ellen dubbed it his best performance to date. Kara focused on the meaning of the lyrics again, saying the anti-Vietnam War intensity didn’t come through even as the vocal chops finally crept back. “I wanted to feel that from you, what you were talking about,” she said. “I felt it at times, but most of the times I didn’t.” Cowell mocked DioGuardi for taking the song too literally and said the vocals were good, if a bit weaker then they were in rehearsal.
Teenager Katie Stevens needed to go big to stay in the game, which she did with the iconic ballad “Wild Horses.” Sitting on a stool under a harsh spotlight center stage, Stevens sang a big pop-diva version of the tune recently covered by Susan Boyle, struggling at first with the melody and then finding her big voice on the long final note.
Randy and Ellen thought, despite some pitch problems, it was a strong performance, and Simon said it was the first time she’s chosen a good song, even if the emotion drained out in the second half.
Clawing back from the abyss, Tim Urban had a chance to solidify his place on the show with a Jason Mraz-y acoustic reggae run through “Under My Thumb.” The arrangement was lively and fun, though the vocals fell flat at points.
Kara and Simon applauded him for going out on a limb and making it his own, but Cowell said it just didn’t work and probably offended Stones fans. “I think it was a crazy decision,” he said.
Resident quirky girl Siobhan Magnus went with “Paint It Black.” Wearing a gothy dress, Magnus opened the tune as a turgid symphonic ballad, then rocked it out, unleashing another one of her Adam Lambert-esque rebel yells as the song built to a wild crescendo.
“You rise above. … You’re like Snooki’s poof — you just stand out and I like it,” Ellen gushed. Cowell said it was the standout performance of the night because some people would love it while others would hate it.
Former paint-store clerk Lee Dewyze took on “Beast of Burden,” transforming the sultry rock tune into a clap-along bro-down acoustic ditty with shades of Hootie and the Blowfish-meets-Dave Matthews.
Simon said he likes Lee and his voice but that he again chose a safe, forgettable song. “Stamp your mark on the competition and stop thinking other people are better than you,” he said. Kara, meanwhile, said he’s growing more than any other contestant from week-to-week.
Paige Miles just squeaked into the top 12 despite a rough week, so choosing the country swinging “Honky Tonk Women” was a bold move. The bump-and-grind urban-cowgirl arrangement suited her scratchy-soul vocal style.
Randy liked it but wanted more energy, and both women and Simon applauded her for hitting big notes despite struggling with laryngitis, though Cowell thinks she still needs to find a way to connect.
The other remaining teen in the competition, Pennsylvania native Aaron Kelly, took the sensitive route with a piano-ballad take on “Angie.” Though it was low-energy and a bit glum, Kelly’s urgent vocals were strong, and he brought his country twang to the soft-rock arrangement.
“Your mom was right — you were born to sing,” Randy said, comparing Kelly to a young Justin Timberlake. After slamming him for not connecting with his song last week, Kara said the high-schooler set her straight with his emotional delivery. Cowell predicted disaster during Stones week but was pleasantly surprised by how Kelly sang the song well within his range.
Closing the show was this year’s singer to beat, Crystal Bowersox, who couldn’t miss with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Strumming her beat-up acoustic, Bowersox strolled out and laid her bluesy pipes on a funky soul reworking of the legendary ode to yearning.
None of the judges thought it was her best performance, though Ellen started to see some personality for the first time in the competition as Crystal loosened up onstage. Despite coming out the clear favorite, Cowell said Magnus bested Crystal because her song had more of a dramatic flair.
What did you think of Tuesday night’s performances? Who killed it? Who blew it? What was your favorite? Who should go home? Leave your comments below.
Get your “Idol” fix on MTV News’ “American Idol” page , where you’ll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.