Theme nights are always tricky, and on Wednesday (March 30), the "American Idol" top 11 had to take on the imposing catalog of Elton John. Some soared and some crashed, and a couple of recent cellar dwellers — Casey Abrams and Haley Reinhart — appeared to pull themselves out of the fire with gutsy performances.
As always on non-country theme weeks, the question was "What is Scotty McCreery going to do this time?" He made the obvious choice, the obscure "Country Comfort," which he picked because it had the word "country" in it, but also because it's one of Elton's only country-leaning tunes.
With lyrics about grandmas and factory closings, it was pretty much what you'd expect: a Vince Gill-esque, aw-shucks acoustic amble accented by pedal steel and piano — with a shout-out to his real granny! — that, well, sounded like just about everything McC has done so far.
"Nothin' I could say to you that an old-fashioned pair of high-heeled cowboy boots wouldn't fix," Steven Tyler gushed cryptically, adding that he (still) loves everything about the teen crooner. Once again, Jennifer Lopez gave the most sage advice, encouraging Scotty not to get too in his head and doubt himself. Randy Jackson marveled at how fast Scotty has matured on the program and said he felt like he was at a headlining show by the "Idol" finalist.
If Scotty always brings the country rumble, dreadlocked rude girl Naima Adedapo similarly finds a way to add a reggae swag to her songs. Wearing a white jumpsuit with red, yellow and green accents, she gave a Bob Marley-esque island vibe to "I'm Still Standing," struggling at points to keep in tune but truly making it her own and creating one of the most unique "Idol" makeovers in the recent memory.
Lopez and Jackson loved the reggae lilt but weren't sure if it wasn't a better idea than the payoff, and maybe a bit corny.
Talk about someone totally in the pocket on Elton night. Paul McDonald went for it with the legendary "Rocket Man," which mentor Jimmy Iovine suggested he play like it was an encore in front of 20,000 screaming fans. Wearing his signature flowered country suit and strumming an acoustic guitar, McDonald started out mellow and seductive, with just a piano for accompaniment. It seemed like he blew off Iovine's advice, because while he retained that ragged Ray LaMontagne vibe, he barely got out of second gear, keeping things mostly low-key and feathery.
Randy called it "quiet comfort" and said, despite being pitchy, Paul's soft, gentle voice was once again infectious, and Jennifer suggested he was holding back and needed to let loose.
"Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" is an old "Idol" favorite, and despite being counseled to move out of the ballad-ballad-ballad routine, Pia Toscano went with the emotional staple. With a subtle arrangement, Toscano put the focus squarely on her powerful voice and, backed by a gospel choir, she seemed to hit the sweet spot once more.
"Pia, you've done it again," Tyler said, gently needling Randy's suggestion that Pia switch it up. "That's what you are and you sang it, you nailed it. And you know how I know a good song? It makes me cry inside ... that's just about as good as it gets." Lopez said the notes Pia chooses take the audience to "an otherworldly place" and that Toscano seems poised to break through to another level.
Stefano Langone made his first trip to the bottom three last week, so he was probably hoping that the epic "Tiny Dancer" would do the trick. But the cheesy arrangement and his smarmy Disney-style performance probably didn't save the day.
All three judges liked it and said Stefano seemed to be really taking their notes and trying to connect with the audience, keep his eyes open and his voice focused on his sweet, high range.
Teen Lauren Alaina was just a toddler during the second revival of ultimate weeper "Candle in the Wind" in 1997, but her restrained, country lilt came off like the ultimate mash-up of past "Idol" divas Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Though the performance was a bit sedate, her vocals were controlled and crisp and she gave off her usual über-confident vibe.
For Randy, it was one of the best performances yet from Lauren, and Lopez said it was simply "it," as the panel was unanimous in its praise for the preternaturally poised high-schooler.
"Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" was the perfect audience-rocking tune for resident hell-raiser James Durbin, who rolled the dice by starting out in the crowd and then slowly making his way down to the stage. He looked like a seasoned arena vet (with a touch of "Rock of Ages" Broadway showmanship), hopping up on the piano, tossing his mic stand and summoning the flames as fire rose up from the candy-apple red keyboard. He topped it off, of course, with one of his rebel yells.
Coming from someone who knows, Tyler told James he had a "really good rock voice," but warned him not to wear out his welcome by overusing his rocksetto upper range. "You'll wind up like me," he joked. Lopez said she forgot it was a reality competition, calling it a great performance by a great artist, and Jackson applauded the fact that James just seems to be having fun when he's onstage.
Also on the cusp of elimination last week, youngest contest Thia Megia went with the poignant "Daniel," with Iovine suggesting that she get away from the high school dramatics and focus on the emotion in the lyrics. She may have taken the advice to heart, but the bland, glitch pop arrangement from Jim Jonsin and Megia's once again pageanty delivery (the ground cover of fog didn't help) mostly fell flat until the very last verse, where some palpable passion came into her quavering voice.
"That was beautiful!" J.Lo enthused, saying Megia really seemed to internalize the song's meaning and find a tune that fit her style. Randy liked how it showed Thia's more relaxed side, but once again felt a bit safe, while Tyler said she found the right song to suit her voice.
After nearly going home last week, Casey Abrams was out to prove the judges' save was worth it. He also took their advice and toned down his screeching and scowling for "Your Song." Sitting on a stool and accompanied by just piano, the more clean-cut singer (he chickened out on shaving his beard) was nuanced and understated, piling on some gritty emotion at the end and capping it all with a sweet falsetto run.
Randy reiterated that saving Casey was the best decision he and his fellow judges ever made on the show and said Abrams' tender yet still personality-plus performance was "absolutely brilliant."
It's fitting that Jacob Lusk first heard Mary J. Blige's version of "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word" before he heard John's original. And, wouldn't you know it? Mary J. just happened to walk through the room when J.Lusk was rehearsing! With fog billowing around him, the gospel divo stood under a dramatic spotlight and gave a solemn, nearly funereal reading of the song, appearing on the verge of tears as he leaned heavily on his quavering, throaty falsetto and ignored Iovine's advice to not be overly theatrical.
The version simply slayed Tyler, who loved everything about it, with Lopez giving props to producer "Tricky" Stewart for tailoring the song to Lusk's voice and including a last, longing note. Randy praised his restraint, but told Lusk to pick that one special "Jacob spot" where he mashes his foot down on the gas.
For someone who has been a frequent visitor to the bottom three, it was surprising to see Haley Reinhart close Wednesday night's show. She went mellow with the rocker "Bennie and the Jets," and though she posed on the piano in her best "Fabulous Baker Boys" mode at the start, Haley transformed the FM radio staple into a stompy, bluesy lounge growler by the end.
It was all a bit odd, but the judges were way into it, with Jennifer yelling, "That was it, Haley! That's what we've been talking about," saying that, as Iovine suggested, she pulled the voice, the moves and confidence together to finally form a winning package. In fact, Randy barked that it the night's best performance as Tyler snarled about how sexy it was.
Thursday night's double-elimination show will feature season-three "Idol" winner Fantasia performing her new single "Collard Greens & Cornbread," and will.i.am and Jamie Foxx throwing down their first-ever musical collaboration, "Hot Wings (I Wanna Party)," from the "Rio" soundtrack.
Who did the best job on Elton's songs? Who blew it? Let us know in comments below!
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