The "American Idol" finals began last night with the contestants singing Rolling Stones songs, and (like the comparable first Beatles Night a couple of seasons ago), the end result was surprisingly not terrible. I thought a lot of the contestants would struggle with the theme and/or be swallowed up by the big stage, but most were okay, and a few were much better than that. (Admittedly, it was the few you would expect to be better.) A review coming up just as soon as you tell a younger version of me to stay on pitch...
Michael Lynche, "Miss You": Lots of "Idol" men mistakenly believe they have a good falsetto, but Big Mike actually has one, which makes this disco-era Stones track a smart pick for him. He takes the song in a more R&B direction, works the stage as well as any contestant will on the night, and can both sing and understand his limitations. It's fun to watch him work up there, and he's easy enough to listen to.
Didi Benami, "Play with Fire": Every time I see Didi without her guitar, I get nervous for her (even if she gave Fienberg a good excuse for not bringing it out each time), but this was the first time she looked comfortable and confident on stage, and she connected with the emotions of her song better than most of the competition did. Like spiritual "Idol" ancestor Brooke White, her range isn't very big, but the tone of her voice is compelling so long as she stays inside that range, which she did tonight.
Casey James, "It's All Over Now": If I saw that performance at a bar, I'd be really happy with it. And that's not a bad thing; there's a kind of baseline competence to Casey that means I'm going to enjoy his presumed long run on the show, even if I don't think he should win. He seems a better TV performer than stage performer so far, in that he knows exactly how to play to the camera but not necessarily how to move around up there while doing that. The movie to a country rock sound is a smart one for him; like I said in my Top 12 preview, that style suits his voice better, and should also help keep him around, since country fans are a surprisingly underserved "Idol" demographic, even with the success not only of Carrie, but of lesser lights like Bucky Covington and Kellie Pickler.
Lacey Brown, "Ruby Tuesday": Lacey and Didi are aiming for the same niche, and have the same baby-doll quality in their voices, but I tend to like Lacey's performances much less both because there's a lot of vibrato in her voice, and because, as the judges noted, there's something really calculated about her performances. Didi, whether she's nervous or confident, seems authentic in how she's carrying herself; Lacey (like Katie, and like some other past contestants), seems like she planned this all out in exact detail: And now I will perch adorably on the edge of the stage! Now I shall smile adorably at the camera! (And, yes, everybody has to rehearse and choreograph their performances; some are just more natural about it than others.) A decent vocal, but nothing special.
Andrew Garcia, "Gimme Shelter": I had hoped Crystal would sing this, but Andrew instead took it, ditched his trusty guitar and tried to show he could bust out of the Girl Songs Sung Acoustically By a Dude niche. It wasn't entirely successful - as Kara noted(*), it wasn't nearly as passionate as this song demanded - but there was a nice gruff edge to Andrew's voice that we hadn't seen before, and he worked the stage well.
(*) She still comes across as abrasive and narcissistic and annoying, but I have to say that Kara has been giving by far the best critiques of the judges this season. And I can't decide if Simon's constant complaints about her taking songs literally is just another case of Simon being lowbrow and caring only about marketing and not (to use Kara's favorite word) artistry, or if, again, he's annoyed that the "Idol" judges are starting to act a bit more like "X Factor" judges - or at least not like complete idiots. It was a lot easier for Simon to seem smart, after all, when he was sharing the table with insane Pauler and incoherent Randy.
Katie Stevens, "Wild Horses": Katie was awful as the semis came to a close, but like a bunch of the others, the big stage (and/or access to one of the best back catalogs of all time) seems to have woken her up. She sounded very much like the singer with all the potential from Hollywood, even if I didn't love the arrangement, which halfway through turned into nothing but her repeating the chorus over and over at increasing volume.
Tim Urban, "Under My Thumb": My wife missed the show last night and asked me if Tim (whom she's understandably surprised is still hanging around) was any good. "He was good in that he hit most of the notes in the extremely limited range he set up with this arrangement, but the arrangement itself was godawful and wrong-headed and jaw-dropping." I loved how even the judges were left largely speechless by it, and I can only hope that their "well, good on your for trying" half-praise might have killed Tim with kindness the way they have with previous Tim types like Kevin Covais and Sanjaya.
Siobhan Magnus, "Paint It Black": Love her. She's like Adam Lambert in terms of the versatility and power and sense of theatricality to her performances, but unlike him in that she doesn't seem to enjoy wailing for the sake of it. This performance built in a way you don't usually see from 90-second "Idol" performances, and she was just as good in the quiet, dramatic low notes as she was when she stood up and started belting. She and Crystal are the clear front-runners at this point, but it'll be interesting to see what happens, given that I think both of them are going to be divisive in some way. Siobhan is awesome, but she's also really weird (see the prom dress + combat boots ensemble). Can they both make it to the final 2, or will someone with less talent but more across-the-board appeal bump one of them out before then?
Lee Dewyze, "Beast of Burden": Lee could certainly be that someone. He takes a kind of roots rock approach to the song, which stripped the song of some of its edge but still sounded very good. Like Big Mike or Casey (but better), not the most challenging or impressive vocal, but the type that should keep him in the race a long time.
Paige Miles, "Honky Tonk Woman": Graded on a curve due to her laryngitis, that was darned good. No curve, and it was froggy and sharp in spots, and I wish contestants could resist the urge to gender swap the lyrics of songs, but still it was a vast improvement on anything Paige did for the last three weeks.
Aaron Kelly, "Angie": As usual, there are parts that are really warbly and strained, and others where he sounds just fine, but incredibly bland. Tim needs to go before him, but there's nothing interesting about Aaron as either singer or stage performer.
Crystal Bowersox, "You Can't Always Get What You Want": I'd have put Siobhan in the pimp spot (though the producers have been making weird pimp spot choices this year, with several pimp-ees getting beaten up by the judges and ending the show on a down note), but if Crystal didn't blow the roof off the joint quite as hard as Siobhan did, she was still damn good. After giving Credence a gospel tinge in the semis, she took this very gosepl-y song and instead made it bluesier, changing the beat while keeping the melody. She's incredibly confident on stage, has total command of her instrument (and by that I mean her voice as much as her guitar, as she can kick out her vocals and then easily bring them back down and not seem showy doing it), and is a pleasure to both watch and listen to.
Best of the night: Siobhan, with Crystal a bit further back but still way ahead of anybody else.
In danger: I really want to say Tim, and if not him Aaron or Lacey, but I've got a bad feeling about Andrew. The judges beat him up when he does the thing he does best, and then that pushes him to do something outside his comfort zone (which they also complain about). Hopefully, the clip package with his dad (the sweetest ex-gangster you'll ever meet) will get him enough sympathy votes that he can outlast some of the more blatant cannon fodder, even though I doubt he's very long for this show.
What did everybody else think?