‘American Idol’ Recap: Caleb Johnson Is The Frontman To Beat

Top 9 finalists Johnson and Jena Irene prove they have the pipes to command a concert stage.

On Wednesday’s “American Idol,” the theme was “I’m With the Band,” and the top nine contestants performed songs with Rickey Minor and the “Idol” band … just like they do every other week. Only this time, the band was onstage with them, so it was different? Sort of?

While it wasn’t exactly the night’s theme, the evening’s best performers treated it like Rock and Roll night, turning up and letting loose with the band. That’s what Caleb Johnson and Jena Irene did, and they closed out the evening on a head-banging high.

Here’s how the night went down:

Caleb, Jena On Top
On a night that was tailor-made for him, Caleb Johnson stole the show by taking on the night’s biggest song, Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” and giving it the sort of outsize, over-the-top presentation it needed. Johnson ripped the stage, and cameras cut to copious Jennifer Lopez reaction shots like they were cut-ins of Taylor Swift at an awards show. J. Lo wound up calling the performance “sexy,” while Harry Connick Jr. remarked, “It’s tough to follow that.”

Jena Irene was the one tasked with following the performance, and she too delivered, continuing her winning streak with an energetic rendition of Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life.” Despite her assertion that she was “crappin’ pants” backstage having to follow Johnson, she lived up to the task and gave one of the night’s most confident and radiant performances. Irene’s past three songs have been by Paramore, Zedd featuring Foxes and Evanescence, which gives her perhaps the best range of any of the finalists.

Majesty Shakes It Out. Malaya Travels Long And Winding Road
After landing in the bottom three the previous two weeks in a row, Majesty Rose attempted to say “Shake It Out” to her bad luck by taking on the Florence + the Machine song. Vocally, she was still shaky, but she gave her most controlled and confident performance yet, and her stage presence alone might have bought her a ticket out of the “Idol” basement.

Malaya Watson showed she has the best raw vocal talent in the competition with her masterful version of the Beatles’ ballad “The Long and Winding Road,” which she personalized by making it about her own long and winding road on the show. It worked, and she should be safe, as long as she doesn’t get dinged for her role in the show-opening medley that saw her out of breath and out of tune during her overexcited take on Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up).”

Alex, Sam Turn Down
Alex Preston is the hardest contestant in this year’s competition to get a read on: He seems like he should be a top contender, but he has yet to earn that one breakout performance that gets people truly excited about him. He started off his performance of No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” like it might be the one, knocking out his own rhythm by tapping on his guitar, but then he quickly settled into a light-rock groove, doing what sounded like 311 taking on the quintessential ’90s ballad.

Sam Woolf is another contestant who seems like he should be further along than he is. His reading of the Plain White T’s tune “Hey There Delilah” had the night’s best staging, with strings of lights scattered around him onstage, but vocally, the performance was meh and there was nothing special about the arrangement. The judges were kind to him, but rode him about his lack of connection during his straightforward vocal delivery. Afterward, he earned awkward points by saying his “Delilah” is his grandmother.

Jessica, C.J., Dexter Stay The Same
This is the point in the competition when the performers who were once in the middle of the pack start becoming the bottom of the barrel, and Jessica Meuse, C.J. Harris and Dexter Roberts could find themselves in trouble if they don’t start picking up the slack.

Meuse, who is used to doing songs she normally performs in her shows, had to stretch to learn Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.” It did her good, lifting her from her usual plainspoken performance, but she still has yet to light a fire onstage. Harris, who has gotten in trouble for his pitch issues the past few weeks, was all over the place yet again, and he could pay the price for choosing the night’s most obscure song, the SteelDrivers’ “If It Hadn’t Been for Love.”

And Roberts, who landed in the bottom three last week, could be there again after singing Little Big Town’s “Boondocks.” Roberts’ problem is he sounds like a generic country singer, and even after being told that week after week, he hasn’t brought anything fresh or personal to his performances, and he’s running out of chances.

Gummi Bears And Stolen Shoes
There were several distractions at the judge’s table Wednesday, one involving the season’s continuing Gummi Bear meme. While critiquing Dexter Roberts’ performance, Urban handed Connick a gigantic Gummi Bear, which Connick proceeded to gnaw on. J. Lo got in on the action too, taking a big bite off the purple bear, but spitting it out into her Diet Coke cup after claiming it tasted “like plastic.” Any theories regarding what is going on with the Gummis this season is welcome.

Earlier in the show, when the subject of Alex Preston’s ankles came up, Connick asked Seacrest to show off his own ankles. Seacrest rolled up his pants and took off his socks and shoes, and Connick quickly dashed across the stage, stealing Seacrest’s shoe and vanishing backstage with it. Basically, the cast is acting like it’s suffering from a severe case of cabin fever. Are they living inside the studio all week?

There is less time to waste during Thursday’s (March 27) show, which is the season’s first 30-minute results episode. But there will be time to squeeze in a performance by Janelle Monáe, and one contestant will vie for the season’s single save from the judges.

Who do you think will be sent home this week? Let us know in the comments!