Kudos to Stevie Nicks, this week's guest mentor on American Idol. Last night, she helped turn a two-person race into anyone's game, as all song choices were spot-on --- songs by contestants' personal idols -- and for the first time since this season began, every single contestant brought out their best. Some contestants' best, however, wasn't on par with others'.
The standout from last night was Philip Phillips, whom Nicks' made clear during the mentor session was her own personal favorite. She was all compliments during their session together, and rightfully so: Last night Phillips launched himself into possible finalist territory, joining other sure thing Jessica Sanchez. He played guitar and led a full band on stage to Johnny Lang's "Still Rainin" -- not the first song we'd pick for an Idol performance, but its unexpectedness is what made it work so well, besides Phillips' rocker charisma and his comfort level on stage.
Likewise, Elise Testone's choice to sing "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin was a big risk to take, and it paid off extremely well. Her voice, rough and raw, shined during the performance - maybe the first time one of Testone's performance was so stand-out. Keep it up, and we could very well see her in Top 3 territory.
Jessica Sanchez similarly surprised. Her choice to take Beyoncé's "Sweet Dreams," slow it down and add a harp was ballsy. There were parts of her performance that worked really well: The way she connected with the song went unmatched last night, but while she was so wrapped up in the Beyoncé-ness of it all, she failed to connect with the audience.
Colton Dixon's performance of "Everything" by Lifehouse was recycled: same emotional vocal delivery, same stage direction, same longing looks into the camera. The only difference: For once, Dixon chose a song that fit his performance formula. He may not have surprised us like others did last night, but he surely disappoint either.
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Skylar Laine did Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead," her country twang sounding an awful lot like Lambert's original delivery -- not necessarily a bad thing, but when you have a night of ballsy performances, Laine's, though vocally great, felt far too safe. The same could be said for Hollie Cavanagh's performance of "Jesus Take The Wheel" by Carrie Underwood: Again, vocally very strong, but it lacked that special flare that other contestants had.
When it came to group performances, Elise Testone, Phillip Phillips and Colton Dixon, with their heart-filled medley of Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks songs -- "Landslide," "Edge Of Seventeen" and "Don't Stop" -- was the strongest group showing of the season so far. The vocals, the mandatory choreography, it all just worked. You could tell the three of them were enjoying themselves, and having Stevie Nicks' own advice, surely helped.
The other group performances -- Jessica Sanchez, Hollie Cavanagh and Skylar Laine doing a Madonna medley and DeAndre Brackensick, Heejun Hun and Joshua Ledet doing a Michael Jackson one -- felt so empty by comparison.
Part of that came from the awkward group dynamics that developed among the singers -- the choreography was clunky and disjointed for both groups -- and another part was due to the subject material. Having Sanchez, Cavanagh and Laine sing Madonna songs about sexuality and relationships, especially "Like A Prayer," just wasn't believable coming from these three. With Brackensick, Hun and Ledet it was a matter of rhythm -- they didn't have a cohesive group rhythm, plain and simple. Where Brackensick and Ledet were all-in, Hun's commitment to the choreography came off sarcastically half-assed.
One contestant will be sent home on tonight's episode of Idol, which airs at 7 p.m. on Fox 31.
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