Austin, Texas is one of the world's premier music hubs, home to the South By Southwest and Austin City Limits festivals and more clubs 'n' pubs per city block than probably any other town in America. It also boasts the proud motto, "Keep Austin Weird." So I figured this'd be a solid episode: Hopefully there'd be plenty of promising musical talent, and in the keeping-Austin-weird department, if the town's oddballs didn't deliver...well, Steven Tyler surely would. (He magnificently arrived at the auditions in a skull-&-crossbones-emblazoned, horse-drawn carriage, for instance. Of course he did.)
Actually, there was a sad shortage of weirdos at "Idol's" Austin cattlecall--other than a Viking girl, a poultry impressionist, and a 7-foot costumed armadillo, it was pretty much just straight-up singing. It was NOT the best batch I've seen this season, not at all, but thanks to a melodica-tooting, Seth Rogen-lookalike breakout star named Casey Abrams, it was an Austin-powered episode nonetheless.
Here's who stood out in Austin this week:
Casey Abrams - When this wooly-haired wacko walked in with his melodica and Muppety "Fraggle Rock" appearance, and announced he'd be singing "I Don't Need No Doctor" by Ray Charles, I instantly got Taylor Hicks flashbacks. I don't mean this as insult. Taylor was one of the most original and flat-out entertaining Idols ever, remember. Still, I was shocked by how great this guy really was. His powerhouse belting and party-hardy good vibes had all the judges out of their seats and dancing by his melodica jam's end. (And after a season packed with sob stories, it was so refreshing to see a happy-go-lucky contestant who just wanted to cut loose and have FUN.) "That was sick-good!" howled Steven. I suspect Casey's about to do for the melodica what Lee DeWyze did for bagpipes last season.
John Wayne Schulz - A total Central Casting cowboy (just check out his name) with a small-town ranch-hand job and two doting parents, JWS came across like a genuine all-American boy. Factor in a requisite "Idol" sob story (yes, again) about his cancer-survivor mom (back when she was sick, he promised her he'd try out for "Idol"), and it all seemed like a done deal before John even opened his cowboy mouth. I admit it was adorable when this mama's boy's folks joined him in the audition room, but I thought his rendition of Brooks & Dunn's "Believe" was somewhat bland. But JWS's mother declared, "I have a feeling he won't disappoint you guys!" We shall see, Mama Schulz. We shall see.
Courtney Penry - This 17-year-old Seacrest stalker arrived on the scene openly declaring her love for "Idol's" host with the most, i.e. "the sexiest man alive" (her assessment, not mine). "I will marry him someday," she announced with eerie conviction. She then added, "Hopefully I won't make a fool of myself"--before, of course, bursting into tears at the very sight of her crush, then breaking into a clucking chicken impression in front of the judges. But then Courtney performed "Stay" by Sugarland, and you know what? This stalker could actually sing. So watch out, Julianne Hough, because Courtney is headed to Hollywood to spend a lot more quality time with your boyfriend. Come to think of it, maybe Ryan should file for a restraining order now.
Hollie Cavanagh - A 17-year-old going on 12, Hollie was a weepy mess the instant she entered the audition room, and was totally out of her depth pitchily singing Etta James's "At Last." Her time had definitely not come along. Randy Jackson, who suddenly seems to be angling to be the new "mean judge" this season, told her no straight away. But the other two wishy-washy judges, who all season long have been easily swayed by a pair of puppy-eyes (or, in Steven's case, a flash of female leg), were much kinder. Jennifer Lopez even offered to let Hollie sing another song, which only made Hollie break into insane, body-racking sobs while the show cut to commercial. This was supposed to build suspense, I assume, but anticlimactically, Hollie eventually sang a decent version of Miley Cyrus's "The Climb," won over Randy, and her made-for-TV story arc was complete as she scored a golden ticket. Gee, I didn't see that coming. Anyway, I think Randy was right the first time. If Hollie can't keep her act together for a five-minute audition, I don't see how she'll make it through day one of Hollywood Week.
Jacqueline Dunfold & Nick Fink - A nauseatingly lovey-dovey couple who were depicted running in slow-mo through a grassy field like a scene out of one of those weird Vaseline-lensed karaoke videos, these two earned my contempt on sight. "Nick is me in boy form...not that I'm in love with myself!" chirped Jacqueline. Oh, gag. I cruelly fantasized about "Idol" tearing them apart, with one of them going to Hollywood and leaving the other behind. But it turned out they both were good (Jacqueline soulfully sang Duffy's "Mercy"; Nick did a nicely Buble-ish version of Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning"). I couldn't hate on them, even though they sickeningly made moon-eyes at each other during their respective auditions. But their goal to be "'American Idol's first power couple"? Um, no. That ain't gonna happen. That honor will go to last week's estranged Chelsee Oaks and Rob Bolin, natch.
Janelle Arthur - This country girl started off on a soapbox about how not all country people are moonshine-guzzling bumpkins with no teeth, blah blah blah. This voiceover, unfortunately, ran over a scene of her extended family playing jugband music on a front porch that seemed straight out of a scene from Steve Martin's The Jerk, thus kind of negating her point. But in the end, this girl sang with surprising sophistication and style. She just might be this year's Kellie Pickler.
Corey Levoy - An awkward teen with a high-pitched cartoon voice and a sister for a BFF, this dorky dude seemed like total reject material. When he announced he'd be singing Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me," I assumed the title was foretelling, and I figured that not even having his sister Brooks, his biggest fan, sitting in on the judging panel would help his case. But it turned out his alto had an interesting R&B-meets-country timbre to it. "I think it was amazing!" gushed biased guest judge Brooks. Ha. But luckily for Corey, the other three judges agreed with her. (J.Lo said he gave her "chillbumps," even). I didn't think he was amazing, exactly, but there was potential there. However, Corey announcing that he has a "J.Lo booty," then shaking his tailfeather, was a little icky. No one needed to see that--especially his sister!
Caleb Johnson - This moptopped rocker got very little screentime, but he convincingly sang Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," which impressed me enough to earn him a mention in this article. Really, only advanced belters (and Johnny Cash) should attempt to follow in the almighty Chris Cornell's motorcycle-booted footsteps. So I'm keeping my eye and ear on this dude.
So there you have it. It was a slightly underwhelming episode--thank gawd it was only an hour long--but Casey Abrams and his magical mystical melodica saved the show. And you know, in the end, all it takes is one.