The city that gave us Fantasia, Clay Aiken and Jennifer Hudson brought some serious soul Wednesday night (January 13), the second evening of auditions for season nine of "American Idol." With the freak show turned down and the talent turned up, 25 singers got golden tickets, among them a number of girls who knocked it out of the park and one peace officer who surprised everyone.
With her wild curls and neon pants, Memphis, Tennessee's Keia Johnson, 26, who won Miss Congeniality in her Miss America bid, started the show off with a bang, putting a smile on guest judge Mary J. Blige's face with a gospel-y run through the Celine Dion "Titanic" tune "My Heart Will Go On."
Continuing Tuesday's parade of medical backstories, 26-year-old Joliet, Illinois, native Jermaine Sellers — a church singer and caretaker for his mother, who suffers from spina bifida — elicited some whoops with his buttery-soul take on Joan Osborne's "What If God Was One Of Us," which Mary J. dubbed "anointed."
From go, Blige proved herself to be more engaged, entertaining and helpful than Tuesday night's guest judge, stiff former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, even busting out one of Simon Cowell's signature lines — "singing is not for you" — to a contestant who just didn't have it.
One of the night's most inspiring stories didn't need any ER drama to make it compelling. Bridge-jumping Vonore, Tennessee, girl Vanessa Wolfe, 19, hoped that a twangy turn through Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel" on "Idol" would help her get out of a going-nowhere life in her small town. Kara DioGuardi appreciated her country wholesomeness, and even though Simon thought she was "ill-prepared" for the pressure of Hollywood, he loved her authenticity and gave her a golden ticket.
Other standouts included South Dakota waitress Mallorie Haley, whose farm-bred good looks and Jewel-like countrified take on Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" got an instant yes from Blige and raves from the rest of the crew for her confidence.
But the night's unexpected treat was Tennessee cop Bryan Walker, 25, who pleasantly surprised the three judges — Cowell inexplicably took a time-out during Walker's audition — with his Ruben Studdard-ized version of the Carpenters' "Superstar," which brought to mind last year's lovable roughneck Michael Sarver.
Among Atlanta's delusionals was a man who claimed Motown kin and sang an all-over-the-place falsetto/bass tug-of-war original called "Lady We're Not Together Anymore"; the most irritating best friends in the world; and an overconfident TV hostess who pummeled the judges with a bizarre version of Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield."
Sometimes, though, even the potential 10-car pileups can surprise, such as the instantly annoying "guitar girl," whose corny Halloween getup turned Cowell off from the jump. Mary J. summed it up with a succinct "I don't get it." But, somehow, despite eight seasons of failed costumed auditions, Holly Harden's throaty cover of Loretta Lynn's "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man" ended up charming Kara, Randy Jackson and Simon enough to put her through.
Orlando, Florida's one-of-a-kind Antonio "Skii Bo Ski" Wheeler, 22, couldn't spell his own nickname correctly on his costume, but his shtick was overcome by a truly soulful "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" that put a smile on Kara's face thanks to an on-point falsetto.
There were the usual frog callers, a guy who Simon said sounded like a cat barking, another guy nose-singing Britney Spears terribly and, of course, a hothead who was as excited about meeting Mary J. as he was to audition, which was a good thing because his shouty "Kiss From a Rose" made Randy wince and Mary giggle into her Coke cup before security hauled him away.
After surviving a deadly childhood illness, a near-miss with a bullet and a close call with a truck, 26-year-old Alabama welder Jesse Hamilton just couldn't survive his horrible audition, where he murdered Garth Brooks' "If Tomorrow Never Comes," sending Blige into paroxysms of laughter while eating up way too much airtime.
Saving the worst/best for last, Wednesday's show ended with the obligatory too-old-for-the-show throwaway, 62-year-old Vietnam vet General Larry Platt. He busted the room up with an original breakdancing ode to saggy drawers, "Pants on the Ground." It was no "I Am Your Brother," but Simon predicted the ultra-catchy song could be a hit someday.
The auditions continue next Tuesday in Chicago with guest judge Shania Twain.
Get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.