Idol Thoughts — 05.04.10

Seems like the turnaround time on these American Idol “theme nights” is getting shorter and shorter. Yes, Idol producers, you can call it something different. But I know that “Beatles Night” and “Lennon and McCartney Songbook” are the same thing. Same goes for last night’s “Frank Sinatra Night,” which comes fairly quickly after last season’s “Rat Pack Night.”

This is more an observation, and not really a complaint. There was something very satisfying, and a little different, about last night’s episode. And all the credit for that goes to guest mentor Harry Connick Jr., whose hands-on approach to the gig was the equivalent of a sit-down restaurant to the normal fast-food mentor.

Connick told Idol producers he wanted to arrange and score the contestants’ songs and perform with them, along with several members of his band, on stage. They said yes. And the end result: Harry Connick Jr., with his easy-going charm, humor, and superb musicianship and showmanship, was the real winner of the night.

The usual routine with Idol guest mentors is the famous singer meets with contestants, listens to them sing their song, and offers a suggestion or two. Connick’s approach was far more entertaining–and valid.

For starters, this sort of collaboration is what’s ahead for a few of these Top 5 finalists. When they go in to make their first album, they’re gonna need to be ready to follow the directions of the expensive producers that have been brought in to create potential hit songs for them. And in the real world, when it comes to performing standards like these Sinatra songs with a big band, this is the normal route. Singers usually defer to the expertise of their band leaders when it comes to the arrangements.

So, how did the Top 5 do? Here are their performances ranked:

1) Lee DeWyze – “That’s Life” – I flip-flopped my Top 2 after about the third listen to each of their songs. Ultimate Lee won out for “completing the assignment” while retaining his own “voice.” Lee was the only one who really manged to stay himself last night; the others took on the persona of the music they were performing. Lee did have a couple moments where he was off-beat with the big band performing behind him. I’d chalk that up to being a little uncomfortable with singing someone else’s arrangement, seeing as doing his own arrangement is kinda Lee’s “thing.” Lee also had a break-through night in getting the audience behind him. This performance was a crowd-pleaser on a level Lee hadn’t hit yet. That’s huge step forward for Lee, with the finale on the horizon.

2) Crystal Bowersox – “Summer Wind” – I can’t say for sure why Simon Cowell was so critical on Crystal last night. I can only say I believe Simon’s being disingenuous. There’s no way he didn’t appreciate this performance. Crystal’s voice was pure and her phrasing the best of the night. Sure, the big vocals of the second half of the song were more impressive than the quieter first half. But Crystal’s explanation of why she approached the song that way demonstrated that she “gets” this kind of music. She was right. Lee and Crystal go on my iPod this week. And I have to assume Simon’s up to something. Either making Crystal feel like an underdog again to get her enough sympathy to catapult her to the finals. Or (yikes), trying to sabotage her chances. You have to wonder what Idol producers are thinking right about now when it comes to a possible Crystal album. What kinda album would that be? And can it be the huge commercial pop success that they want it to be?

3) Michael Lynche – “The Way You Look Tonight” – Big Mike benefited from Connick’s best arrangement of the night. But that’s not to short-change the vocal, which was solid, and the presentation (old-school suit and fedora), which was fun and fitting. Good stuff. Not in danger of going home tonight.

4) Aaron Kelly – “Fly Me To The Moon” – At 17-years old, Aaron probably had the biggest hurdle in front of him last night–convincingly performing these standards from an ancient era. Fortunately, he picked a very accessible Sinatra song, and turned in a solid performance. There wasn’t much sizzle. And I agree with Simon that he was a “mouse” to Sinatra’s “lion.” But as anyone who’s tried to get rid of a mouse can tell you, they’re pretty crafty.

5) Casey James – “Blue Skies” – Rough night for Casey. Being stripped of his guitar, and having to follow someone else’s musical direction, really screwed with this guy’s head–and his performance showed it! Casey looked awkward and uncomfortable on-stage and seemed to wander without purpose as he sang. You could almost see on Casey’s face as he sang a sort of resignation to his fate; that with appearances in the Bottom Two the last two weeks, this was not going to end well for him. Regardless, Casey’s been one of this season’s faves at our house. So we’ll be looking forward to what he does next.

Predictions for tonight? Well, I kinda just made them. But to formalize, the Bottom Two tonight will be Aaron Kelly and Casey James. And it’s the end of the road for Casey James.

Greg Valentine
check me out on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gregvalentine

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