The first half of the American Idol
season 16 Top 24 hit the stage for mostly solid solo performances. But, boy oh boy, did they save the best for last.
Twelve entered the fray and sang before the judges. But at this point, the competition starts and ends with Cade Foehner and Gabby Barrett. The pair closed out the show in epic fashion, essentially making you forget the 10 who preceded them.
But luckily for the forgotten men and women of America(n Idol), there's another chance to shine before Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan send five competitors to the coal mines.
A collection of musical stars, including Train's Pat Monahan and Sugarland, will each be pairing up with two members of the Top 24 for the duet round, and it's do or die for anyone on the fence. Jonny Brenns, Catie Turner and Dominique seem like locks to join Cade and Gabby, but the remaining two spots are up for grabs.
Michael J. Woodard and Layla Spring strike me as too young, too cute and too nice, while Michelle Sussett and Trevor McBane seem a cut below the rest. Brandon Diaz, Kay Kay and Dennis Lorenzo have potential for stardom, but they were bogged down by less-than-stellar song choices that didn't let them shine.
America the Moot-ful
As previously discussed, there is no question as to whether or not viewers will get this one right because we're not yet part of the equation. And it's difficult to tell which way the judges are leaning when they offer near universal praise for everyone.
We're normally subjected to judge bias only in their attempts to sway our votes, but now it's all that matters. So while America may not be enamored with Michael J. Woodard's seemingly random genre jumping or Michelle Sussett's ability to perform in two languages, it's clear that they're safe after over-the-top ovations from all three judges.
Similarly, viewers might be willing to give early favorite and WGWG Brandon Diaz another opportunity after a so-so Lionel Richie impersonation. But unless he channels the ghost of Justin Bieber during his duet, he's done.
The collaborations will not only serve as a test of star power but will also reveal if the singers can stand out amid seasoned veterans. The potential for a moment is there, but it will also be easy for a green newbie to get blown off the stage.
Catie Turner Uses Correct Grammer
Our first pairing is the lovably weird Catie Turner and the simply lovable Andy Grammer. I made fun of his lack of notoriety when he first appeared on Idol, and now I actually know, like, two or five of his songs. She's wonderfully bouncy and spacey as he dissects the meaning of "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)," and he advises her how to shake off nerves before they end with a giant hug.
Their voices blend together so well that if you close your eyes, you might think there's only one person on stage. It's fun, even if it's a little campy, and it's hard not to fall in love with both of them. It's just plain delightful, right down to her snub of his nose at the end.
Katy is impressed with how comfortable Catie felt being around a star, Lionel thinks she killed it and gave it back to Andy when he was giving it, and Luke has nothing else to add. The girl is a lock.
Cade Foehner Can't Be Torn Apart
Cade is teaming up with Bishop Briggs for INXS' "Never Tear Us Apart," and she's in awe of both the texture of his voice and his sparkly green eyes. She's the mentor, but he ends up teaching her how to sing the song, and it's indicative of the future that awaits him.
It's goosebumps from the first note, and the raw power on display is astounding. There's not much to critique, so it's one of those moments where you sit back and enjoy it. His guitar playing is top-notch, and even without hearing the other group of 12, I'll be shocked if he's not the next American Idol.
Lionel says it's time to put the tickets on sale, Luke asks if Cade wants to go on tour (hint: he does), and Katy cautions him not to let all this praise go to his head because he's too special to get lazy.
Layla Spring is Sweet as Sugar
Layla is super excited to sing "Stuck Like Glue" with Sugarland, which is good because, you know, at least she'll be going out on a happy high note. She squeals "Sugarland!" something like 100 times in the introduction, and she's so adorably tiny next to Jennifer Nettles on stage that it's tough to take her seriously.
The performance is fine, and it's fun enough even if Layla is incapable of standing out while looking so much like a little kid. She's got all the energy in the world, and it's not her fault, but she's not ready to look like she belongs.
Luke disagrees, though, feeling that Layla fit in well with the famed duo. Katy believes that she's springing full of joy and has the makings of a star, while Lionel dubs her the bravest person he knows for handling herself like she's done this before. She's so excited afterwards that she bounces up and down like there's a trampoline backstage.
Dominique Puts Me to Sleep
Dominque is paired with Aloe Blacc, and his "Wake Me Up" is a tale of their shared progression. Aloe wrote it as a reflection of how far he had come from his days as a business consultant, and we all know how ready Dominique is to quit his job as a legal secretary.
He struggles with the lyrics in rehearsals, and if that carries over to the stage -- with the songwriter next to him -- well, there's no coming back from that.
Dominique manages to remember all the words, but there's a timidness that makes it feel forced and uncomfortable. There's one solid bit of harmonizing, but for the most part, they bounce back and forth without ever blending as a duet. Dominique was great in the solo round, but this one lacks magic to the point where even Aloe Blacc doesn't feel like a star.
Katy says she doesn't know how to critique anymore (did she ever? Do any of them?), Lionel praises the smoothness of the performance, and Luke is all about Dominique's versatility.
Brandon Diaz Smacks a Mosquito While Eating a Burrito
Does anyone else replace the lyrics to "Despacito" with anything that rhymes with despacito, or is that just everyone I know? Well, get your Doritos and taquitos because Brandon Diaz is tackling the song of last summer (and the Winter Olympics ice dancing competition) with Luis Fonsi himself (who starts by asking if Brandon is sick of the song yet).
Singing in Spanish is outside Brandon's comfort zone, and even though he pulls off the look and the early solo bars, the lack of smoothness is quickly evident as soon as the actual duet starts. Brandon can't keep up with the guy who's done this particular song a million times, and he pales in comparison.
Lionel is amazed at Brandon's tool belt and feels he went toe-to-toe, Luke applauds the song choice and is "sold," and Katy found it beautiful and that he held his own. Okay.
Kay Kay and the Choo Choo
The star in the making is teamed up with Pat Monahan for Train's "Drive By," and she needs to make up for scream-singing an emotional Rihanna song in the solo round. Unfortunately, she isn't used to singing with a band and can't hear herself during rehearsals. Pat cautions her to go with the flow and never let the audience know if she's struggling.
I'm not sure if that continues during the performance, but the harmonies are terrible. It might be a case of a girl with a huge voice reining it in on a song that doesn't require power while participating in her first-ever collaboration, but it does not work at all. There are moments where she shows off her pipes, but it's cringe-worthy as a duet.
Luke can tell it was outside her comfort zone, but the energy was great. Katy knows that Kay Kay can sing, but this was two different types of fruit. Still, the blend of them was amazing. I want to end that sentence with a question mark. Lionel commends her for taking care of business, especially on her first effort. I guess they don't have to be honest since there's no voters to influence? Will they ditch this strategy when we take over the decisions?
Trevor McBane Lives in a Van Down By the River
We're one lap through, meaning Bishop Briggs is back to sing her hit "River" with the Man in Black. Trevor can't be more excited, feeling that their voices were made for each other, and he pulled his car over to jam the first time he heard the song on the radio. They're vibing, and she agrees that they're a match made in heaven.
It's a rock-out song, for sure, and while Bishop brings it, the combo is a bit boring. Trevor's solo verse is off-key and muted, and he gets blown off the stage. It's clear who the star is, even if they have fun with it, and she believes that he's destined for greatness.
Katy appreciates that he came out of his shell to match the firecracker, while Lionel apparently repeats, "You went toe-to-toe," when he has nothing else to say. Then he rambles about Bishop's animated movements. Luke loves Trevor's style and consistency, and it's a telltale sign of his path to success.
Michelle Sussett Can Make Me Love Her
Fresh off "Despacito," Luis Fonsi is back to channel his softer side into Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me." It's one of his favorite songs (and mine), and he's also a big fan of Michelle. They talk about family, and he encourages her to use the pain of missing her hometown into the emotional lyrics.
The key for her is to restrain all that energy she's known for in order to forge the connection, and even if she's prone to over-singing and mispronouncing words in English (like Brandon did in Spanish), she largely accomplishes that goal. Luis is far more polished, but what makes this one work is the harmonizing on the chorus. It's beautiful, and they make it feel authentic.
Lionel touts the chemistry and calls it a pleasure to watch, Luke didn't want it to end and felt like a fanboy, and Katy is a believer that Michelle can accomplish whatever she sets her mind to -- in life, not just here.
Jonny Brenns Goes Back Home
Welcome back, Andy Grammer, who is teaming up with Jonny Brenns on "Back Home." Andy has always wondered if it's enough to be a sincere good guy writing songs or if success requires change. And so he appreciates Jonny clinging to who he is and where he came from, and the song epitomizes that message.
Andy is so smooth and comfortable, and it's difficult for Jonny to match that at first. He eases into it, but it appears that stage presence is always going to be an issue for him. This one is good enough and has its moments, but I'd bet Johnny is going to shine brightest when he's sitting at a piano.
Luke likes that Jonny branched out from his soulful wheelhouse, but he'd like to take a week to show him the ropes on a stage. Instead, he has to learn by doing. Lionel feels like Jonny was actually having fun and took note of his smiling, while Katy urges him to take undercover ballet lessons.
Dennis Lorenzo Teams Up with His Personal Idol
Allen Stone returns to work with Dennis Lorenzo, completely "Unaware" (see what I did there?) that he's this Idol contestant's actual idol. It was Dennis' audition song and his closer when he was performing while homeless, and Allen is nervous because he likens his collaborator's vocal cords to "a flock of beautiful doves." He encourages to Dennis to drum up those memories and channel the desperation into the lyrics.
They blend their voices perfectly, and this really could be either of their songs. Dennis' falsetto gets Lionel on his feet fist-pumping, and Allen couldn't be more excited to hear it. I still don't love Dennis' chances to win, but this is up there with the best of the night.
Katy says, "Wow," over and over and loves that he's still playing his old guitar with the hole in the front, while Lionel can't believe the chemistry between them as they sparred on stage. Luke calls Dennis the Little Engine That Could who stood up there with greatness, and audiences couldn't tell the difference.
Michael J. Woodard is a Denim-Wearing Cherub
I love me some Train, particularly the early stuff before they turned overtly pop (their debut album is one of my favorites, from start to finish), and Pat Monahan's next mentee is Michael J. Woodard. It's "Angel in Blue Jeans," written about a dream girl and then realizing you found her, which prompts Michael to suggest that maybe they shouldn't make too much eye contact. It's impossible not to like this kid, even if I haven't been a fan of his music thus far.
It's a great pairing, and the song suits Michael's voice perfectly. There have been a couple of these duets that were clearly two people with different agendas, but Michael's strength may be adapting to situations where it's not entirely up to him.
I can write about anything with the tiniest of guidance, but give me a blank computer screen and I'll just stare at it. Michael's path to success is complimentary in nature because he knows what to do without having to make those tough identity decisions.
Lionel applauds him for rising to the occasion and urges him to enjoy the ride, while Luke can't turn his gaze and is inspired by his love for the audience. Katy calls him a beautiful chameleon, and she appreciates his authenticity.
Gabby Barrett Makes Us Want Her to Stay
Closing out the show in the symbolic pimp spot is Gabby Barrett, who is teaming up with Sugarland for one of their biggest hits, "Stay." Gabby is essentially a Jennifer Nettles Mini Me, and they instantly get along swimmingly. It's an emotional song, but Gabby plans to channel her own family struggles and her dad's love into a memorable performance.
It's day and night compared to the Sugarland duet with Layla because Gabby belongs from her first notes to the haunting harmonies. There are still a few nasally moments, but this very easily could've been initially recorded as a trio.
Luke doesn't believe that anyone else has nailed it from top to bottom, Katy applauds her for showing up and consistently growing, and Lionel lauds her for hitting all the dots instead of simply following along with them.
The Results are In
I hate to call for the departure of some of my favorites, but based on two rounds of performances, my predictions have changed. Gabby Barrett, Cade Foehner and Catie Turner are locks, while Michael J. Woodard, Dennis Lorenzo, Jonny Benns and Michelle Sussett elevated their games when it mattered most.
Conversely, Brandon Diaz, Trevor McBane and Kay Kay carried over their struggles from the solo round. Then there's Layla Spring, who is lovable but not ready to hang, and Dominique, who took a big step back after a solid opener. The results seem pretty clear, even though I hate to say goodbye to Brandon, but it's not up to me.
Kieran dims the lights for the first time this season, and headed to the Top 14 to compete for America's votes (yaaay!!!! We're not waiting to round out the Top 10 with wildcards!) are:
Michael J. Woodard
Welp, there you have it. As much as I love Brandon and Dominique, and as much as I'm not yet a fan of Michael and Michelle, the judges got it right based on these performances. Congratulations to those who made the Top 14 because they all earned it.
We'll do this one more time with other half of the Top 24, and then ABC will hand over the reins and trust that we won't screw it up. There tend to be a lot of what-ifs before America gets to make the decisions, but it's so far, so good, even if we didn't get to hear everyone in the showcase round.
Do you agree with the judges' picks or did they get it wrong? Who would you have preferred to see advance and who survived that you believe should've gone home? Are you with me that this is Cade and Gabby's competition to lose, and is there anyone still to come that you think can hang with them? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
(Image and videos courtesy of ABC)