The theme for Wednesday night's (May 4) top-five "American Idol" performance show was Then and Now, and the remaining contestants went out of their way to let viewers know exactly what musical pocket they've settled into with their song choices.
Helping to guide them along was Grammy-winning superstar Sheryl Crow. And while some, like front-runners Scotty McCreery and James Durbin, hit a pair of home runs — including a Durbin performance that was one of the most emotional in "Idol" history — frequent bottom-three dweller Haley Reinhart stumbled in the judges' eyes with an unreleased Lady Gaga song, only to storm back into their hearts with a show-closing, vocal-fireworks display.
After a detour into sensitive singer/songwriter land last week, rocker Durbin was back in his bombastic lane with 30 Second to Mars' "Closer to the Edge." Crow did a duet with Durbin to get him in the groove and lead mentor Jimmy Iovine dubbed it the perfect song choice.
James started out a bit shaky, his vocals flat and a tad tinny, but after pumping up the room and rising up into his head voice, he walked out into the crowd and doled out the high-fives, working the stage like an arena-rock veteran. With pyro shooting off behind him, he made a clear attempt to reach the folks all the way in the back of the room.
"I think you kicked that song's ass," said Steven Tyler, deeming JD ready to rock stadiums. Jennifer Lopez agreed, saying "it's yours to take," and Randy Jackson liked how it made Durbin feel contemporary and took him out of his 1980s hard rock zone.
Jacob Lusk was feeling confident about his chances of winning and proved it by taking on Jordin Sparks' "No Air." Crow deemed the tune difficult, but felt good about Lusk's chances of nailing it, even though he was attempting to sing both the Sparks and Chris Brown parts. Lusk was in fine voice, using his breathy falsetto to its full power and adding a funky body wave to his repertoire, but the solo duet was a bit awkward.
J.Lo's always liked his showmanship and called his voice one of the best ever on the show, but said she wondered what his career might look like. If the Sparks song was it, she counseled him to stick with that sound. "I don't think that's the direction for you," countered Randy, saying it was mostly sharp and was a mistake to sing both parts. "I don't see you as Chris Brown or Jordin Sparks," he added, saying Lusk should focus on being a more Luther Vandross-style crooner.
Teen Lauren Alaina chose Carrie Underwood's "Flat on the Floor," and Crow suggested she stand still and just belt it! Wearing a sassy outfit with silver tassels hanging around her waist, Alaina took their advice and shimmied in place while putting all her sass and country swagger into the fiddle-rocking tune for one of her strongest performances to date.
"That is the direction for you!" Jackson said, psyched about the fun, energetic side Lauren showed. Tyler agreed and Lopez said, simply, "You ate that up!"
It was back in the down-home groove for McCreery with Montgomery-Gentry's gritty rocker "Gone." The first few lines were delivered in his signature baritone — with a bit of stilted over-enunciation — but once he broke into the chorus, Scotty looked and sounded like a future Grand Ole Opry veteran as he owned the song and put some kicky emotion into it.
"Up to now you've been like a puritan, but I swear to God I saw you dance with the devil tonight, and that's a good thing ... that showed a whole other side of you," offered Tyler to Jackson's utter confusion. Lopez said Scotty just owned the stage and whooped about his growling, by which she meant the good kind, not the Casey Abrams kind.
Talk about a coup. Iovine gave Haley Reinhart the as-yet-unreleased Born This Way Lady Gaga tune "You & I," and with Gaga's blessing, she played it as a jazzy torch song. With a seductive purr and her trademark guttural growl, Reinhart bumped and grinded her way across the stage and sang the tune like a show-stopping, hands-in-the-air bluesy encore at a 5,000-seat theater.
Though she loved some moments in the song, Lopez wasn't sure about the choice of the unreleased tune and felt it didn't showcase Reinhart's gifts. Jackson agreed that picking a song no one knows was risky, but Tyler said it did spotlight her strengths. "I think you're just one perfect song away from being an 'American Idol,' " the Aerosmith singer offered.
Durbin couldn't stop crying listening to the sensitive piano ballad "Without You" by late Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. Choked up thinking about his son and fiancée, Durbin was clearly emotionally invested in the tune, belting out the line "I can't live if living is without you," putting on a heart-stopping performance that ended with a beautiful note and a trickle of tears.
Maybe all the notes were not spot-on, but Randy said it was "emotionally perfect" and said after that bravura performance, it is James' contest to lose. "That was just as beautiful as it gets," Tyler agreed.
With that hard act to follow, Lusk went with Iovine's suggestion of "Love Hurts," a hit for rockers Nazareth in 1976. Playing the tune as a swelling, soulful diva ballad, J.Lusk poured his heart and gospel stomping power into a lush arrangement accented by a harp and sharp brass accents.
"Everybody got lost in you because you got lost in the song," said Tyler, who thought it had the usual Jacob overkill, but still came off well. After a shaky first song, Randy felt Lusk redeemed himself and speculated that final towering note was the highest ever on "Idol."
Alaina's second song was an "AI" classic, the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody." Looking like a 1950s girl singer in a flowing, white-and-blue gown, Alaina did her best to make the oldie feel contemporary amid a tepid, doo-wop arrangement, sometimes struggling to find the melody but ending strong with some forceful vocals.
Lopez couldn't even judge, calling it just a beautiful song sung beautifully and Randy said it was a nice, tender moment for the teen singer.
Elvis fanatic McCreery stayed true to himself and chose Presley's "Always on My Mind." Slowing the song wayyyy down, McCreery likely melted hearts coast to coast with his sincere, seductive country crooner take on the tune.
Lopez thought Scotty's two performances of the night perfectly showed off his rock-to-a-soft-place range. "This is what you do, what you love ... and you do it so well," Randy said, encouraging the 17-year-old to stick with the horse that got him there.
Needing a home run, Reinhart went with another "Idol" staple, the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun." Crow suggested Haley come out and perform a cappella at first. Sitting on a stool in dramatic spotlight and singing the song in a smoldering, echo-laden voice, Haley testified her way through the lyrics as if playing a midnight set at a Southside Chicago blues club, seemingly redeeming herself.
Randy said she came all the way back and then some, putting on the best performance of the night. "Sweet and sour, raspy, I can really relate to that. That really sells a song and I think you sold everybody tonight," Tyler said.
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