‘American Idol’ Recap: Paul McDonald, Pia Toscano Rock Out

Scotty McCreery also goes uptempo as James Durbin slows things all the way down.

There are plenty of ways that “American Idol” is mixing things up and dragging the highest-rated show into the present this season. But after taking a bedazzled trip to the 1970s last week with Elton John, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame theme on Wednesday night’s (April 6) performance episode was yet another example of why “Idol” is your granny’s favorite show.

The search for today’s new star made yet another pit stop in the past, inviting the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am in to mentor the top nine as they dug into rock’s back pages. Some balladeers rocked it out (Pia Toscano, Paul McDonald), while the rockers got mellow (James Durbin, Casey Abrams) and Scotty McCreery proved he’s no one-trick cowboy.

Jacob Lusk was up first and he worried about his not-rock background. But Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” was firmly in his warbly gospel sweet spot. Uncomfortable with the song’s blunt lyrics, however, he went with Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” instead, wearing all-white as he wrapped his breathy falsetto around a spare acoustic guitar arrangement. Singing the song as a duet with a female backup singer (the song’s co-writer, Siedah Garrett, in fact), Lusk showed off some newfangled hip thrusts and then unleashed his gospel flavor as he rumbled around the stage.

Steven Tyler loved it, Jennifer Lopez said Jacob proved again that believing in yourself is the key and Randy Jackson gave Lusk props for sticking to his moral convictions. After looking for a “Jacob Moment” last week, Randy said those moments were all over Wednesday’s performance.

After getting a lot of Janis Joplin comparisons all season, Haley Reinhart picked the oft-sung JJ nugget “Piece of My Heart.” She had the right growl and swagger, and looked the part in leather leggings and flouncy top, but her blues-mama belting came off a little too cheery for the gritty tune.

“What you’re showing everybody is that you’re a contender,” Lopez told her. “You’re coming on strong.” Randy said Haley finally brought out the cool, bluesy vibe the judges fell in love with early on and congratulated her for finding her lane.

After will.i.am turned the Police song “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” into a beatboxing rumba for Casey Abrams, mentor Jimmy Iovine wasn’t feeling it. Like Jacob, Casey changed his mind, too, and went with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” plucking his upright bass alongside a gently strummed mandolin and keeping the vocals in the non-crazy eyes zone for a second week. It was pleasant, but perhaps a bit vanilla at this point in the competition.

Fellow bass player Jackson said Casey did the song justice while singlehandedly making the upright cool. “The whole world’s watching you because you’re not just a singer, you’re a true musician,” Tyler told Abrams. Lopez said Abrams was also right in the pocket playing his bass and said that’s exactly where he belongs.

Talk about a perfect fit! Teen Lauren Alaina sought to wed R&B and country on Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Doing a slow walk down the stage and holding the audience in the palm of her hand, the 16-year-old poured more sensuality and feeling into the slow-burn classic tune than, well, someone her age should even be able to.

“Four months ago you came in here an immature little girl and tonight you are a natural-born woman,” Tyler gushed. Jennifer wasn’t sure how Lauren would handle the song, but labeled it, simply, “amazing,” and Randy said after choosing one of the toughest songs of the night, Alaina did a solid, “good” job on it.

You might have expected rocker James Durbin to go even more over-the-top, so he took it the opposite direction with late Beatle George Harrison’s slinky “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Sitting on a stool and shrouded in shadows, Durbin did, indeed, gently croon the song over a weepy string section, but while slowing things down and saving his rebel yell until the very end showed another side of vocal his personality, it also pointed out that James’ instrument has some obvious flaws.

Jennifer liked seeing the other, vulnerable face of James, saying it helped make the rocker aspect of his personality that much stronger and Randy appreciated seeing how the emotion of the song lived in Durbin’s eyes. “Taking chances like that are extremely important,” he said.

What would country boy Scotty McCreery do? An Elvis Presley tune, of course. A lifelong Elvis fan, McC chose “That’s Alright Mama,” and the gospel-tinged rockabilly arrangement fit Scotty’s voice to a T. Despite his awkward microphone technique, he worked the stage like a seasoned pro and totally won over the room. It helped that a gaggle of squealing tween girls were let loose on him at song’s end to give him a group hug.

“Scotty is in it to win it!” Randy said. “Anybody that thought that you were a one-trick pony, that all you did was the country thing, dude you can perform … this was amazing!” Steven agreed, saying that Scotty made Elvis feel new and fresh again and Jennifer sensed, well, a little bit of hip-hop flavor in the teen’s moves.

She’s made a reputation for singing ballads, but Pia Toscano came out of the box for Tina Turner’s high energy “River Deep, Mountain High.” Planting herself confidently center stage, Toscano indeed showed a whole other side of her personality, unleashing the passionate soul diva within. That titanic note at the end didn’t hurt her, either.

“Murderer, murderer! You killed it,” Tyler yelled. “There’s a million guys in a million bars out there having a million drinks about you tonight.” Lopez said the “amazing” vocals proved that Toscano can handle the uptempo songs as well and encouraged Pia to keep researching the greats to figure out what else she can do to make her performances special.

Stefano Langone needed to knock it out of the park this week after some close elimination calls, and for a sensitive ballad singer, Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” seemed like the right call. Leaning on his crisp falsetto, Langone showed more feeling and emotion than he has in weeks past, stepping out of his cruise-ship zone into a meatier, more personal space.

J.Lo was blown away, squeaking, “Baby, baby, baby, I knew you had it in you! That was beautiful!” She felt that extra layer of emotion and said she could tell he was singing it about or for somebody. Randy wasn’t jumping up and down as much, dubbing the first bit of the tune uneven and encouraging Stefano to ease up and save his big punches for the end.

After a shock trip to the bottom three last week, Paul McDonald attempted to come back with Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” with Iovine encouraging him to sing it like he was out of his “f—in’ mind!” Unable to stop smiling and be anything but his loveable self, McDonald nonetheless let loose a bit and was more ragged than usual as he furiously strummed his acoustic, stomped his feet and got the crowd clapping along.

“I loved it!” Randy shouted, getting an amen from Tyler and Lopez.

So, who will go home Thursday night? Check back tomorrow to find out.

Who was your favorite on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Night? Tell us in the comments!

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