Last night on American Idol, the guys performed for the first time in season seven. They had to choose a song from the Sixties, which was a little unusual for the semifinals, because they usually get to choose whatever song they want.
Two finalists will be sent home on Thursday, based on audience votes. For the most part, people seemed afraid to take risks and turned in safe performances, with some exceptions.
David Hernandez started off the evening with "Midnight Hour," wearing a bland stylized western shirt and jeans. He proved he can sing, although his performance was often too low-key for this sort of competition, and he got pitchy at the end.
Judge Randy Jackson said that he liked the gospel vibe in the front of the song but noted difficulties at the end of the song. He advised that he watch his long phrasing. Nice judge Paula Abdul said that he had brilliant vocals, and that it was lovely. She complimented his "perfect vibrato." Tough judge Simon Cowell said it was better than he'd expected. He said it had begun "terrific" and then in the middle, he was a bit like a "rabbit in the headlights" and he'd lost it at the end. His main advice was to loosen up.
Next up was Chikezie with "More Than Yesterday," wearing a godawful red suit that made him look about 40 years old. In addition to the garish suit, he was also off-key for much of the song and relied on cheesy performance techniques, such as singing "woo" in the middle of a phrase.
Randy called it "pretty good" but said he's an "old-fashioned" singer and needs to make his performance fresh. Paula told him he's come a long way and, as is usually the kiss of death, told him he looked great. When she has nothing nice to say about the singing, she compliments what people are wearing and, given her abysmal fashion sense, this often means their outfit is weird. She told him he has the potential to be a great R&B singer, which is a bit like telling him he's only good in that genre. Simon, never one to mince words, said he hated the whole performance. When Simon called the suit hideous, Chikezie talked back. Simon continued, calling the wink hideous and the "woo" hideous, as well. Rising to the bait, Chikezie argued about his song choice, which is never a good move, especially when the voting public is just getting to know you. Nobody who has openly argued with the judges has gone on to win, as far as I know.
The next performance came from David Cook, who did "Happy Together." David styles himself to be a rocker, with a modified Caesar cut in funky colors, and wearing a gray vest with matching pants and a tie. He might want to be the next Blake Lewis, but he stuck with a pretty traditional arrangement of the light song, trying to infuse some rock vocals, which just seemed strange. It did get better near the end.
Randy said he didn't like the beginning but that the end rocked. Paula said he was worthy of great praise and "you rocked it." Simon said it was good but that he'd shouted in the middle and it was a weird song choice for him. He added that he'd "almost made it believable."
Then came Jason Yeager with "Moon River." Jason, who apparently has never watched American Idol in his life, wore a very old-looking outfit of a dark blue sports jacket with faded jeans. The song he chose was out of his range, and he was pitchy for most of it. Since he sat on a stool the whole time, his performance lacked energy, as well. The ending was a little better as he gained confidence.
Randy noted that it's a tough song to sing and that he'd had problems pitch-wise. Paula agreed that the simpler the song the harder it can be to sing, although she got distracted by saying it was a sentimental song for her. Apparently, she'd danced to it at her first dance recital. At this point, Jason jumped in and said he'd chosen the song because it reminded him of his grandmother. (Any time a song reminds you of your grandmother, don't sing it in this competition!) Simon said that Jason had seemed much older and it was a very cruise ship performance. He said he was like "a dependable old dog," not exciting.
Robbie Carrico performed "One," which was just OK. He was going for a rocker vibe, with a red bandana wrapped around his long hair and a gray shirt. Maybe it's because the '80s are supposedly coming back, but he looked like an Axl Rose wannabe. At least he was melodic and showed potential. Although, in my view, Aimee Mann did a much better cover of the song on the soundtrack for Magnolia.
Randy called it "very nice" and said it's one of his favorite songs. He added, "You moved me, baby." Paula said it was a perfect song for him and that he's authentic. Simon called it the only current performance of the evening so far, although he said he wasn't sure about the authenticity. He asked him if maybe he wasn't more of a pop singer, and Robbie said he was definitely not a pop singer. This could be a problem in a contest that's ultimately about pop music.
All was forgotten when David Archuleta took the stage with "Shop Around." He had lots of spirit, which added to his great vocals. He didn't look like he'd over thought what he was wearing, in an orange patterned T-shirt under a long-sleeved shirt. He seemed like he was having a lot of fun and was definitely a natural.
Randy called the performance brilliant and said that he sang maturely for 17. Paula called him very brave and complimented his bold choice of song. She said he was confident and that he'd done a great job. Simon said, "When you've got it, you've got it." He called it the best performance of the night "by a comfortable mile."
The second half of the show was started off by Danny Noriega, who did "Jailhouse Rock." Maybe he's not aware of the fact that Taylor Hicks did that song a couple seasons ago with a lot of energy, wearing a suede jacket and getting the audience on their feet. Because he kind of wimped out. He came down a spiral staircase onto the stage, looking very stiff, as if he was afraid of falling. He was dressed in a very androgynous outfit, a white shirt with a skinny tie and black pants. The vocals were kind of good, but he seemed uncomfortable and did a sort of anemic twist.
Randy said that he's known him to have a good tone and that it was pretty good. He called it an "interesting song choice" for him, which basically means a bad one. He called it "kinda hot." Picking up on that, Paula called it "very warm, almost scalding." She suggested that he look into doing more with song arrangements. Simon said the performance was verging on the grotesque. He called it hideous and berated him for destroying an Elvis Presley song.
But the next performance would make even that seem good. Luke Menard took the stage with "Echoes of My Mind," which I can't even hear in my head right now, it was so forgettable. He wore a sloppy gray hoodie over a T-shirt with stubble on his face, which made him look like a 30-something Gen Xer wandering around on a Saturday morning, singing in his bachelor pad. Not only that, but the performance was off-key.
Randy said it was pitchy, saying it was sharp all the way through. Paula agreed and said it wasn't the best song choice. Simon said the problem was that it was forgettable and said this is the worst trap, because no one will remember you.
Next up was Colton Berry with another Elvis song, "Suspicious Minds." Let me just give a little advice to anyone who wants to do an Elvis song. He was such a strong performer, that you risk looking like either a pale imitation or a parody. Colton might have wanted to be the latter, because he came out wearing tight, bright blue pants (were they parachute pants?) with a black shirt. He started out whispery and then fell into sort of a loungey performance.
Randy called it a great song and said that, while it started rough, it was pretty good. Paula said it was nice to see a different side of him but he wasn't at his best. Again, she seems oblivious to the fact that, while the judges had seen him perform many times, this was the first full-length performance the audience had seen. So doing something that was different for him probably wasn't smart, since whatever he'd been doing previously was the reason he'd made it this far. The audience might never get to see that. Simon said it was OK, that it wasn't as bad as the other Elvis song, but that he'd gotten nothing from it except a kid who might have a career in musical theater, not a recording artist.
Garrett Haley was next with "Breaking Up is Hard to Do." Talk about a throwback. While talking to host Ryan Seacrest before his performance, Garrett admitted that he's often told he looks like Peter Frampton. With his long, blonde curls and his retro fashion sense (he wore a patterned maroon T-shirt with a vest), he looks like he might be performing in some long lost 1970s version of American Idol. Which might have been OK, except that his vocals were pitchy and reminded me of a bad high school talent show.
Randy said he loves the song but that Garrett hadn't done anything with it. Paula advised him that sometimes you need to take a slow tempo song and tweak it, since singing slow all the way through tends to bring the performance down. Simon said that it was boring, that he looked terrified and, moreover, that he looks like he's been shut up in his bedroom for a month. This a comment on the fact that he looks a bit pasty and anemic. Of course, Ryan took this to mean that Simon thought he needs a tan, but I doubt that's what he meant. I think he probably meant that he needs more energy and should try to dress more like a contemporary young person.
Then came Jason Castro, who was a breath of fresh air, livening up the stage with his rendition of "Daydream." He's definitely got a hippie sensibility, as evidenced by his long dreds, and he also wore a retro flowered shirt. His other accessory: a guitar. The pure tone of his vocals reminded me of Arlo Guthrie, and while he looked every inch the folk rocker on stage, his guitar playing was weak. The guitar also seemed out of tune, which was distracting. So I doubt that playing the guitar added anything to his performance. Rather, it just gave him an extra element to have to think about on this first, stressful night.
Randy said that he liked "the guitar vibe" but heard a bit of a pitch problem on the end note. Overall, he said it was all right. Paula said that, while it didn't blow her away, the song was perfect for him. She called it effortless and joyful. Simon said it was one of the top two performances of the night and that he's "got it." He praised the song choice but said it should have been just him and the guitar. He also called it effortless, that he sounded current and that he has charisma.
Ending the show was Australian singer Michael Johns, who sang the Doors song "Light My Fire." He was very strong and a natural on-stage. But he didn't seem derivative, down to the fact that he was dressed very contemporary, in a black jacket, jeans, white shirt and scarf. He did get a little pitchy in parts, but overall the performance was strong.
Randy praised him for throwing all caution to the wind and compared him to Michael Hutchens, the ill-fated lead singer of INXS. Paula said that he'd set everyone on fire and that the song had a great ending. And Simon said he's been the most consistent contestant they've ever had, that he has the natural charisma of a lead singer and that "you've just got it."
So to wrap up, kudos to Michael Johns, David Archuleta and Jason Castro, as the three strongest of the night. A nod to David Hernandez, who needs to find a way to step out. David Cook and Robbie Carrico also showed some potential.
The most likely to go home are Luke Menard and Jason Yeager, both of whom turned in lackluster performances. Also, anyone who turns in something old-fashioned and boring tends to leave quickly.
The judges said this was the most talented group yet, and while that remains to be seen, this was one of the strongest opening shows I've seen.
If you're going to wear a godawful red suit, don't be surprised people don't like it.