It's down to three, and if this season (or any season, frankly) of "American Idol" has taught us anything, it's all about song choice. Left to their own devices, the top three mostly blew it on Tuesday night with their selections, with only Lee DeWyze earning lukewarm praise for his pick, while Crystal Bowersox and Casey James both elicited tepid responses. Things turned around in the second half when all three got thumbs-up from the judges (who also happened to pick the songs), and DeWyze sprinted ahead of the pack with a powerhouse performance of the oft-covered Leonard Cohen soul-stirrer "Hallelujah," which has been the savior of many an "Idol" contestant.
First up, though, was Cool, Texas' James, who chose little-known singer Eric Hutchinson's 2008 song "OK, It's Alright With Me," which he said felt like something he could have written. James sang the bouncy pop tune in his signature bluesy rasp and smiled his way through the peppy lyrics, earning a clap-along from the pumped-up audience but clearly not impressing the panel.
Randy Jackson said it was just all right and deemed the song choice too safe and easy, and Ellen DeGeneres agreed, reminding James that what he really needed to do was blow the crowd away. "The problem is, it is arguably the most important night of your life," Simon Cowell said. "You're lucky you've got two song choices, because I would compare that first song to if you were having dinner, that's the salad. In other words, there's something more hopefully substantial to come." He ended by saying James appeared to be busking for change rather than competing to win.
Bowersox went with a more recognizable song, picking "Come to My Window" by Melissa Etheridge, a song that seemed like an obvious choice for her voice and blues-mama style. Opening with some Bob Dylan-esque harmonica and finger-picked acoustic guitar, the Elliston, Ohio, native came out a bit wobbly with the first couple of lines but soon found her vocal footing and leaned into the choruses with her big, brassy voice, biting into the passionate lyrics and displaying her signature sass.
Kara DioGuardi thought she got lost in the arrangement a bit but still brought a decent vocal. Jackson also didn't love the arrangement but said Bowersox rose above with her vocals and won him over. Cowell agreed and gave her props for never once compromising during the entire competition. "You came out here and you just decided to do what is you," he said. "It's a very honest performance, and I think you probably made the right choice."
Also slinging his acoustic guitar was Mt. Prospect, Illinois' Lee DeWyze, who said the lyrics to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man" — a tune he has frequently performed at karaoke bars with his hometown pals — have always spoken to him. Starting out solo acoustic, DeWyze didn't change up the arrangement of the classic-rock ballad too much but still managed to put his patented bar-band-crooner stamp on the tune.
After asking him why he chose the song — Lee explained that it just makes him happy — Cowell said Lee picked well. "I don't think you won round one; I think you just crushed the other two," Cowell said. Comparing him to a "little baby lamb" when they first met him, Ellen busted out another of her bizarre metaphors and said Lee's blossomed into a carefree impala. Randy agreed that it was a brilliant song choice and growled, "Somebody here is feelin' like they could win!" Kara said he did what every wannabe "Idol" winner needs to do: show dynamics and pick a song that has meaning, calling round one for DeWyze.
For their judges' pick, Randy and Kara went with John Mayer's "Daughters" for James, saying it fit his commercial appeal to women. His eyes narrowed in concentration, James gently strummed an electric guitar, accompanied by some subtle piano and acoustic guitar, as he played a straightforward, smoldering jazz cover of the only contemporary song in the mix, making some flirty eye contact with the camera, and, seemingly, some ladies in the crowd.
"This fits you like a glove, and I hope that you continue in this direction," Jackson enthused, seconded by DioGuardi, who said the song showed his more artistic, vulnerable side. Cowell couldn't help but laugh at Kara's commendation of her song choice, saying he liked the performance but had an issue with the "lazy" arrangement and held his fellow judges responsible for not providing James with a "moment."
Ellen gave Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" to Crystal, hoping it would help show off MamaSox's range. Sitting on the stairs to start, Crystal put some gospel grit into the tune as she made her way down the stage, growling the lyrics (without changing the gender pronouns!) and putting some serious soul fire on the subtle solo hit from the ex-Beatle.
"I couldn't have asked for more. That's what I was hoping you'd do, and you did it," smiled DeGeneres, after Jackson shouted, "Great song, great vocals, and America, we got somebody else in it to win it!" Kara praised her for putting down the guitar and showing off new parts of her voice. "What you've proved after that performance is that you've got soul," said Cowell, who was initially wary of the song choice. "You worked outside of your comfort zone, and after that, you may be thanking Ellen next week for putting you in the final. That was terrific."
Going back to a song that has been pay dirt for several former "Idol" contestants, Cowell chose Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which the judge said he suspected DeWyze could knock out of the box. Backed by a string section and a gospel choir and bathed in white spotlights, Lee poured all of his gravelly spirit into the song, his voice rising to meet the ascending arrangement before climaxing with a sustained note that earned him a standing ovation and, likely, a berth in the finale.
"Lee, you are what this show is all about," Kara gushed. "Somebody who starts in one place and ends up here tonight in an incredible, epic moment. You are the heart of this show this season, and you just owned the entire night." Jackson gave props to Cowell for picking the song and called the performance unbelievable, as Ellen concurred, calling the tour de force "stunning."
Never one to mince words, Cowell said he was very proud of DeWyze and said the performance proved he was a "fantastic singer and a great person" who is on his way to realizing his dream.
Wednesday night's elimination show will determine this season's finalists and will feature performances from Justin Bieber and Travis Garland.
How do you think the top three did? Who came out on top? Who is probably going to go home? Leave your comments below.
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