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Idol Top 5: Neil’s Diamonds In The Rough

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

Many impressive mentors have excitingly guest-starred on AmIdol over the past seven seasons, but there was perhaps no mentor in Idol history that I was personally more excited about than tonight's special guest: the one, the only...Neil frickin' Diamond. I am a big old geeky Diamondhead: I've seen his flick The Jazz Singer enough times to quote from it, Rocky Horror-style. I've got a bootleg of the mockumentary Neil Diamond Parking Lot on an old VHS tape somewhere. I once attended Neil's taping for the now-defunct British music show Top Of The Pops, where I stood in the front row and sang along dorkily to his acoustic performance of "I'm A Believer." I've seen the Neil tribute band Super Diamond in concert. I've been known to sing "Sweet Caroline" at karaoke bars, on occasion. I have a friend who's held "Hot August Nights"-themed summer parties and "September Morn"-themed autumn brunches.

Get the picture?

Anyhoo, I was both hopeful and fearful about the top five singing Neil Diamond songs this week--hopeful because getting to see Neil on the small screen was a real treat, and fearful because if any of the finalists screwed up these songs, I was going to hold a grudge. Neil's extremely well-written compositions are very malleable and adaptable--note great past Diamond covers by the Monkees, UB40, Urge Overkill, Deep Purple, et al--but if they're done incorrectly, they can be truly embarrassing to sing. And as someone who's done Neil karaoke, I ought to know.

So after the five finalists pow-wowed with Neil, wearing blank expressions that implied they had no idea who he really was (for shame! the man is a legend, people!!), Jason Castro--who actually messed up his lyrics while rehearsing with Neil (for shame, again!!)--was up first. Each contestant performed two songs this evening--double the Diamond, double the fun--and JC's first tune of the night was a song very fitting for a casual-dress hippie like himself: "Forever In Blue Jeans." But it was just so-so, just typical guitar-strummy Jason. Now, I love me some Jason Castro, but I was unmoved by his version of this classic.

David Cook is famous for "borrowing" rock bands' arrangements of cover songs--Incubus's take on Lionel Richie's "Hello," Chris Cornell's version of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean"--so I was surprised he picked such obscure Neil covers tonight, starting with "I'm Alive." I would have bet good money he would have done Urge Overkill's cover of "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon," as heard in Uma Thurman's drug-overdose scene in Pulp Fiction. Anyway, I wasn't super-impressed by this performance either; it was a little too disco for my taste. Disco and David Cook do not mix. But hey, David gave Neil "goosebumps," and Neil's opinion counts more than mine.

Brooke White was smart to pick a well-known and much-loved Neil hit for her first song: "I'm A Believer," as popularized by the Monkees and later Smash Mouth. But her bubbling-over bubbliness and goofy grinning reminded me too much of her hokey "Here Comes The Sun" Beatles Night performance. And what was she thinking when she put on those leather pants? It was bad enough when David Archuleta wore trousers like that. Let's face it, the only remaining Idol finalist who can get away with leather pants is David Cook. Who is dressing these poor contestants?

David Archuleta was next, thankfully not wearing leather pants and taking on my karaoke staple, "Sweet Caroline." Well, he sang it better than I do, I'll give him that. He sang it pretty well, actually, but his performance was so cheesy I wondered if tonight's show was sponsored by Velveeta. The outta-control flappy hand gestures, the over-emoting, all his nervous tics...I really didn't dig it. Unlike Jason, who barely seems to be trying at all these days, Archie seemed to be trying way too hard tonight. I would have preferred if he did Neil's E.T.-inspired song, "Turn On Your Heartlight." Now that's a softie song I could see Li'l David doing justice.

Syesha Mercado sang fifth, looking completely unrecognizable with her flat-ironed, center-parted hair as she crooned "Hello Again." She sang it well--I think at this point in the competition there's no doubt that Syesha has a good voice--but it was kind of boring, kind of dinner-theaterish, kind of dated. I didn't like it...but maybe I'm just secretly jealous and bitter against her because she GOT A HUG FROM NEIL! Omigod!

So round one was over, and the judges, having had time to stew and mull over their first-song critiques, raced through their feedback. Randy thought Jason and Brooke were a'ight, and he dug the Davids and Syesha. Simon didn't like any of them--and while I thought his comment about Brooke being a "nightmare" was a bit harsh, I agreed with him for the most part. As for Paula's comments, either she inadvertently revealed that all of the judges' critiques are staged and prescripted, she was back on her post-manicure painkillers again, or she is a psychic...BECAUSE SHE CRITIQUED TWO JASON SONGS WHEN HE HAD ONLY SUNG ONE SO FAR!

No, that was not a capslock there. I just want to emphasize the fact that Paula rambled on and on, negatively, about a song she had yet to hear. A song that had yet to be sung.

For round two, Jason finally got around to singing his second song, my personal brunch theme "September Morn"--and you know what? Maybe Paula is psychic. Because her premature negative critique of Jason's song was pretty spot-on. He just seemed to be throwing the whole competition away. He wasn't even trying. He could have done something awesome with this number, but he choked.

Of course, his excuse was that he was choking, literally, right before he hit the stage, and that this hindered his vocal performance. But I don't know if I buy that...

David C. followed with "All I Really Need Is You," and this time doing a lesser-known song paid off for him. He rocked it like the David The C I know and love. For all her crazy talk, I agreed with Paula this time when she said, "I feel like I am already looking at the American Idol."

Brooke returned to do "I Am I Said," back at the piano where she belongs. Clearly her piano bench is her comfort zone, and on this song she seemed so much more natural--the smile on her face seemed genuine, not some maniacal, forced Pollyanna grin.

Randy said he enjoyed seeing her "showing all her flaws," which sounded like backward compliment to me...but I guess he liked it. I liked it too.

David A. was next with the Jazz Singer anthem "America," a flag-waving victory song that was probably the smartest, most audience-pandering song choice this season since Kristy Lee Cook did "God Bless The USA." (Simon certainly took notice of this.) I found David's lip-licking performance even cheesier than "Sweet Caroline," but Simon was right:

Archie's audience will simply eat up that cheese. This kid ain't going nowhere.

And finally, for her second song, Syesha sang "Thank The Lord For The Nighttime," and I must say this was an even smarter song choice than Archuleta's. The song fit her as well as that little body-hugging cocktail dress she was wearing. She sassed it up, gospel-fied it, and she was focused, focused, focused. This was a woman on a mission. A mission to stay out of the bottom two, for ONCE.

But is this a mission impossible for Sy? She was one of tonight's better performers, but she's never developed the fanbase of, say, the Davids or Jason. So I am afraid that despite her best efforts, her time will be up this week. I predict she will once again be in the bottom two--probably alongside Brooke, whose first song was NOT good--and that it will be Sy who goes home tomorrow.

And so concludes what Simon declared the strangest show in AmIdol history. It's true, most of the contestants tonight were unable to make Neil or his diehard Diamondheads proud, which was strange considering what great material they had to work with. But tune in tomorrow to see the man himself, Neil frickin' Diamond, perform...and to find out if my Syesha-elimination prediction comes true.

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