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‘Idol’ Top 9 Night: It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll But I Like It

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

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So, after "American Idol" producer Nigel Lythgoe swore that there'd be no themes this season, for the third week in the row there was a theme. This Wednesday was Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Night. And after Nigel also insisted that there'd be no celebrity mentors, this week the contestants were mentored by the great, legendary Hall Of Famer...will.i.am. Of the Black Eyed Peas. No slag on Mr. Am, but last time I checked, BEP were not in the Hall. Nor does Will usually perform rock 'n' roll music. You'd think that between "Idol's" two in-house music-biz veterans, Jimmy Iovine and Steven Tyler, the show could've found a more suitable guest star (like Thursday's results-night performer, Lindsey Buckingham, or maybe Todd Rundgren, who was actually sitting in the audience Wednesday). But hey, will.i.am has a new Rio movie theme to promote, and he's on Jimmy's label, Interscope...and I suppose in this day and age, that's qualification enough. And besides, Will is on "Idol" so much lately, Nigel might as well just make him a judge already. Does he just refuse to leave the set or what?

But enough complaining. This was actually an awesome episode that, well, rocked. It started with a highly entertaining intro piece featuring Steven giving a personal tour of the R&R Hall Of Fame museum (something any tourist would pay good money to see), then it was time for the big rock 'n' roll revue. And since rock is unpredictable, this was a show full of 180 switch-ups (or "360's," as the math-challenged J.Lo might say), including one performance, by Paul McDonald, that brought him back from the brink of last week's elimination.

For instance, metal man James Durbin soft-rocked through a mellow ballad, while Pia Toscano abandoned her usual ballads for something more uptempo. And Paul rebounded in a major way that should guarantee that he'll get to do a quirky "McDonald two-step" victory dance on Thursday's results show.

Let's rock the recap, shall we?

Jacob Lusk - Jacob was going to sing Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," but the sexy song didn't sit well with the gospel guy's moral convictions, so he switched to the more inspirational "Man In The Mirror" by Michael Jackson. (I wonder if that's why Kris Allen did it in Season 8?) Anyway, moral dilemmas aside, from a purely musical perspective, this was a wise decision. I just can't imagine Jacob doing sexy very convincingly, despite Ryan Seacrest's later peculiar praising of his "hip-thrusting." As usual, Jacob delivered another solid-as-a-rock performance, although he was nearly upstaged when his song morphed into a duet with Siedah Garrett, the woman who co-wrote the song with Glen Ballard. How'd that happen? Maybe he missed his old duet partner Naima Adedapo or something. Overall, though, this worked. "Every time you sing you bring another little piece of yourself to the party, and I love it," raved Steven. Jennifer Lopez called the performance "perfect in every way, on every emotional level." Randy praised Jacob for sticking to his beliefs and told him there were many "Jacob moments" throughout. I don't think this was Jacob's best moment, but I always enjoy the energy Jacob brings to the "Idol" stage, and this night was no different. Lusk for life!

Haley Reinhart - After being compared to Janis Joplin by all the judges throughout the season, Haley finally took the hint and did "Piece Of My Heart" this week. "You want Janis, I'll give it to you!" she declared. Jimmy and will.i.am advised her to sing it like she was angrily targeting an errant boyfriend, so I was disappointed when, during her performance, the camera never panned to a reaction shot of her rumored sweetheart, Casey Abrams. That would've been priceless. As far as my reaction goes, I liked this--Haley does have that old-school rock 'n' roll growl--but in parts I do think she overdid it with the sexiness; this is my usual complaint with her. I appreciate that she pushes herself, but sometimes she just pushes too hard. However, Haley is definitely rising in the ranks, and I do think it might be a while before she has to sit on a bottom-three stool again, especially if the judges have anything to do with it. "You're a contender!" said Jennifer. "You're coming on strong, you got that stuff. You keep going like that and you're gonna be around for a minute." Howled Randy: "That's the Haley we love! Welcome back, back, back!" And Steven was the most praising, saying: "I couldn't find nuthin' wrong with that. Janis brought that voice to rock 'n' roll back in '68...and you did it again tonight!"

Casey Abrams - Casey had planned to do the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" (which, embarrassingly, he said was a Sting song). But Jimmy and Will protested, saying his version veered dangerously into lounge/rumba territory. Well, maybe they were right--there was another Casey, Miss Casey Carlson, who ruined that song in Season 8, so this year's Casey might have been wise to avoid it altogether. Instead he did Credence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen The Rain," and while it wasn't his most fiery or memorable performance, there was one thing exciting about it: His stand-up bass was BACK! Casey played the bassy, as he likes to say. Randy once called Casey the greatest musician ever on "Idol," so it seems a shame to keep him away from his instruments. (On that note, I'd love a melodica solo next week.) "You definitely made CCR proud," said fellow bassist Randy. "You've now made the upright bass cool!" (Note to Randy: The upright bass was ALWAYS COOL.) "That's exactly where you belong, with your bass--and I'm paying top dollar to be in the front row," said Jennifer. And an equally impressed Steven said, "You're not just a singer, you're a true musician!" (Then he recycled the comment he already gave Jacob, "Every time you sing, you bring something different," but I'll let that slide because for the most part, S.Ty stepped up his game this week and gave good critiques.)

Lauren Alaina - Lauren has been compared to Kelly Clarkson ever since her first audition, so maybe she thought it was a bright idea to sing "Natural Woman," probably Kelly's most famous performance from Season 1. (This was worse than Naima doing Fantasia's signature song, "Summertime," and almost as bad as Stefano Langone doing the David Cookified "Hello.") And, oh yes, "Natural Woman" is an ARETHA FRANKLIN song. You know, by the Queen of Soul? So Lauren clearly had a lot to live up to. I'm not so sure she succeeded. Her performance was decent, and I liked her modified-Sanjaya fauxhawk (was that guest stylist Gwen Stefani's doing?), but I still think she was a fool to attempt what Randy dubbed the most difficult song of the night. "I wasn't jumping up and down, but I think you did a good job with it," murmured Randy. "But there were some people in other seasons [Kelly, cough] who really laid it out." The other two judges were more impressed. J.Lo called Lauren "amazing" (a word she uses as often as Steven says "beautiful"), and Steven proclaimed, "Four months ago you came here an immature little girl, and now you are a natural born woman." I still think Lauren has some growing up to do, though.

James Durbin - Upon learning of this week's Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame theme, I excitedly braced myself for rocker James's blitzkrieg performance. Would he do Van Halen? Metallica? Maybe some Stooges or Sex Pistols, even? That is why I was so surprised when James decided to warble the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," a sweet and somber ballad. But you know what? I didn't mind. First of all, unlike some contestants on this show who shockingly confessed in Vegas that they barely know who the Beatles are, James knows his stuff. (He's already covered Paul McCartney twice this season, if you count last week's group number.) And George Harrison, who penned this song and got a sweet shoutout this week from Steven Tyler, is my personal favorite Beatle. Basically, James nailed this. In its own quiet way, this was the most rocking performance of the night. It came from a deep, raw, emotional place, dedicated to his family, and it showed he's not all about Judas Priestly screaming, bandanna tails, pyro, and Pepsi jokes. He has a serious, sensitive side, too. J.Lo loved his vulnerability. "It's nice to see that other side of you, that other dimension that lives so deep inside of you," she cooed. Agreed Randy: "I love seeing the real true emotional side of James Durbin, to see you be sensitive and engage and emotionally connect!" And Steven wrapped it up nicely by telling the choked-up James: "Not only did your guitar gently weep, but you did as well. That's really a proud moment for you." I'm proud of James, as well.

Scotty McCreery - Scotty decided to do some Elvis, which was a risk, since it's pretty easy for a Presley performance to go the Vegas-impersonator route. So, was Scotty's performance just a corny impression, or a genuinely authentic effort? Well, a little of both. The lipcurl, the weird leaning thing he always does, and the constant smirking during his rendition of "That's Alright Mama"--that was all a little hokey. But he brought a lot of energy to the stage and finally ventured out of his country box a bit. I didn't love it, but I didn't cringe like I'd expected to, either. The judges certainly weren't cringing--just the opposite, in fact. "Scotty is in it to win it, y'all!" raved Randy. "This was a new Scotty; we've never seen this side!" Admitted Steven, amusingly: "I thought you were all hat and no cattle, but you brought it." And Jennifer detected so much "flava" and swagger in Scotty's performance, she accused him of secretly studying hip-hop videos. Scotty plead the fifth. We'll just have to see what happens if "Idol" ever has a Hip-Hop Night.

Pia Toscano - Making good on her promise from last week to perform Ike & Tina Turner's "River Deep Mountain High" (minus the Ike), Pia finally rocked, relatively speaking, this evening. No, it wasn't a performance on a Tina level, but finally Pia brought some pizzazz to the stage: She moved around, worked the crowd, and danced, instead of just standing still at a microphone in a Grecian column gown a la Celine circa '97. And her voice, of course, was impeccable. "Murderer! Murderer! You killed it!" yelled Steven. "There's a million guys in a million bars out there having a million drinks about you tonight." (I guess that is a good thing, right? A toast to Pia, then.) "Vocally, you proved you can sing an uptempo. You are really, really, really special up there," said J.Lo, although the former Fly Girl advised Pia to continue studying the great performers (like Tina) and work on her movement skills. Randy gave Pia the same advice, but added, "What you showed me is what I already knew--that you could deliver an uptempo!" Perhaps there is nowhere for Pia to go from here but up, now that she's showcased her uptempo side.

Stefano Langone - This season's resident loverman did Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman"...and while the woman writing this particular article didn't exactly love the sharp falsetto notes at the song's beginning, by the end he--as Randy might say--worked it out. It was another 180 of sorts, within three minutes. Jennifer apparently only paid attention to the end of Stefano's song, though, since her reaction was: "Baby, baby, baby! I knew you had it in you...that was MAGIC!" Steven just called it...wait for it..."beautiful." Of course he did. Randy once again said he "wasn't jumping up and down" (Side note: Does Randy EVER jump up and down? Has anyone actually ever witnessed that?), and said the performance was "jerky" at beginning. J.Lo then protested and accused Randy of being "crazy." (Crazy like a fox, that is! I agreed with Randy.)

Paul McDonald - This Nashville rocker faced a big challenge this week, after losing momentum with a series of imperfect performances and landing in the bottom three last Thursday. But he could not have picked a better comeback song than Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," a classic that Jimmy advised him to "sing like you're out of your mind." Since Paul often looks kooky when he's not even trying, that was an order he was quite able to obey. "I'm gonna do this song as crazy as I can," Paul warned...and it was crazy-good. By the end of his ramshackle, rabblerousing performance, the entire "Idol" stage had transformed into a hoedown. (During the show's outro, Steven even joined in with a spoon-banging solo.) "You're a perfect imperfect boy," said Steven. "You rocked the house!" J.Lo declared this "the perfect way to end the show." And Randy said: "I've got three words for you, man: I LOVED IT!" And I've got four words of my own: I REALLY LOVED IT.

So, now it is prediction time, and with so many great performances this week, this one is exceptionally tough to call. I fear Jacob may be in the bottom three this time, although if he is, I don't think it will be because of his theory. See, Jacob said, "If I end up in the bottom three, it will be because America failed to look at themselves in the mirror." No, if he ends up (undeservedly) in the bottom three, it'll be because he sang in the doomed first slot. As for the other two, Lauren may find herself up for elimination for the first time, alongside frequent chopping-block visitor Stefano. And if that's the case, I think it's Stefano who'll be the first male singer of the season to go home.

Tune in Thursday to see if I'm right! Until then, Parker out.

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