By Chaz Lipp

The wild ride that is Season One of the ABC edition of American Idol continues. After maintaining unprecedented control over the whittling down to the top ten, the show has taken a brutal hack’n’slash approach ever since actual voting began. Next week is the finale. Unreal. Ten became seven, seven became five, and now five have become three. And for the first time, instead of a battle between two contestants, three will become one. It’s too fast. Hopefully with the show reestablished and back on firm footing, ABC will have a little more faith next season and allow the show to return to a “one elimination per week” format.

Things kick off with a group number which includes this week’s guest mentor Carrie Underwood. “See You Again” is mostly a showcase for Maddie, Gabby, and Michael, with Caleb and Cade taking a backseat. The judges then proceed to complete B.S. us by saying they’re going to actually CRITIQUE the contestants this week, for the very first time in the competition. Spoiler Alert: this doesn’t happen. Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan deliver the EXACT same fawning affirmations they’ve been doling out all season. (Okay, okay, Katy DOES try to balance things out with some useful comments now and again.)

Round 1 – Carrie Underwood Songs

Michael J. Woodard – “Fight on the Floor” – The judges’ take: Lionel – “You’ve got it. It’s all about your performing. You started off on a grand scale.” Katy – “There’s no one like in you in this competition, in this industry, and on this planet Earth.” Luke – “America could sit back and hear your lyrics, the way you deliver them and make them believable.”

Right off the bat, Lionel’s first “You’ve got it!” of the night. Michael delivers a personal best with this uptempo Underwood tune. It’s a great vocal and the first convincing upbeat, non-ballad Michael has turned in thus far. A fun way to start the night. (Hey, I could be one of these judges!) Grade: B+

Gabby Barrett – “Last Name” – The judges’ take: Katy – “You are making an impression. You have to establish yourself in the industry.” Luke – “You’re Carrie Underwood reincarnated.” Lionel – “We made the decision that we’re going to be harder. It was just fabulous.”

One of the closest things to constructive criticism of the night, Katy seems to subtly suggest that Gabby still needs to chip away all the Miley-isms, Carrie-isms, and whoever-isms and find HERSELF. (Maybe I’m reading too much into Katy’s comments, but I think that’s what she was getting at.) Of course Luke jumps in with the inane and entirely unhelpful “You’re Carrie Underwood reincarnated!” (I know she took a nasty fall down some stairs recently, but she didn’t die did she??)

Gabby rocked the house with this performance. Even though I feel she projects too much arrogance at times, the fact is she can really sing and really perform. Seems like these kids have their game faces on tonight. Grade: B+

Cade Foehner – “Undo It” – The judges’ take: Luke – “American Idol has pushed you outside your comfort level. You turned a Carrie Underwood song into your song, a rock song.” Lionel – “I’m trying to be as hard as I can. You did a great job, I’m very happy.” Katy – “I think Carrie was smart to give you that advice. You’ve put a lot of attention on the big and the gritty. Focus a little more on that subtlety. You have more to play with.”

Ah, more subtle constructive criticism from Katy—to be fair, she’s the only judge this season who has actually tried to inject some realism into her comments. Anyway, Cade should definitely try to find work as a guitarist and back-up singer in someone else’s band, because he’s good at those. This vocal wasn’t all that, but it was a serious-minded performance that showed Cade taking the competition seriously. Grade: B-

Caleb Lee Hutchinson – “So Small” – The judges’ take: Lionel – “I’m going to be as hard as I can. You’re about as real as it comes. You’re a stylist unto yourself. I love what you’re doing.” Katy – “I’m such a big fan of your authenticity. I do have to say that some people are physically outperforming you. You have to flap those wings a little bit harder.” Luke – “Your voice is going to be your own voice. You’re not going to sound like anybody else. Ride that, embrace it.”

Again, Katy emerges as the voice of reason. Caleb is really just as limited as Cade. Whereas Cade has the “blues rocker” image and approach down cold, Caleb is equally prepared with the whole old-school C&W vibe. We get essentially the same thing from both performers each week. The difference is, there are more country fans watching (and voting) on Idol than rockers. This first performance from Caleb seemed kinda phoned in. Grade: C

Maddie Poppe – “I Told You So” – The judges’ take: Katy – “I had no idea where I was. I just knew I was in your world. You have a lot of strengths. I just want to hear a record of yours.” Luke – “You tell the story perfectly. I’ve been wanting to hear you do a country song for so long.” Lionel “Don’t overthink. You have it.”

Maddie is clearly this season’s underdog. Without having the showiest voice of the group, she has carved out a fan base by staying true to her stylistic roots while also exhibiting a lot of variety and range. She turns in another understated winner with this Underwood tune. It’s not as “big” as some of what went before, but it’s clear she’s connecting emotionally with the song. Grade: B

Carrie Underwood performs her song “Cry Pretty” as a sort of intermission before we get into Mother’s Day songs.

Round 2 – Mother’s Day Dedications

Gabby Barrett – “I Have Nothing” (Whitney Houston) – The judges’ take: Luke – “I don’t even want America to hear my voice speak after that so I’m shutting up.” Lionel – “I’m so proud of you.” Katy – “Who are you and what did you do with Gabby? I don’t know where that came from, but wherever it did, please bring it out again.”

Luke gets paid for this?? Anyway, Gabby struggled a bit with this very grand-scale song early on. But she recovered and powered through it. I don’t really sense much emotional depth in her performances and this is not exception. But it’s a strong vocal nonetheless. Grade: B

Cade Foehner – “Simple Man” (Lynyrd Skynyrd) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “Everyone who missed late-‘60s early-‘70s – that was it.” Katy – “I loved your dynamics and your singing tonight. Congratulations.” Luke – “It was perfection. Way to show who you are.”

Cade delivers his best work of the season in what will prove to be, essentially, his curtain call. This was a smart choice and his vocal is better than anything he’s offered so far. Grade: B+

Michael J. Woodard – “Still I Rise” (Yolanda Adams) – Katy – “You’re anointed. It’s so beautiful what I just saw between you and your mother.” Luke – didn’t say anything. Lionel – “You are anointed my friend.”

Thanks again, Luke, for the insightful commentary. Well, after the lively, energized Michael that opened the show, we now get the “Oh my gosh, it’s this all so magical” Michael that we usually see. Choosing a 20-year-old Gospel pop tune that didn’t make the charts probably wasn’t a great move. Maybe it was perfect for the dedication to his mother. But it didn’t make the impression it needed to with mainstream viewers. And his enunciation issues surfaced again in what was, for him, a rather average vocal. Grade: C

Caleb Lee Hutchinson – “Stars in Alabama” (Jamey Johnson) – The judges’ take: Luke – “It’s so fun hearing you in your wheelhouse. I can see the future with you doing that song. Good job, it was awesome.” Lionel – “That’s stardom my friend.” Katy – “In two years when you’re 21, I’d like to drink a beer with you.”

Better than his earlier outing tonight. Still entirely predictable, but that pure country voice rang through loud and clear. Grade: B

Maddie Poppe – “God Only Knows” (Beach Boys) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “Let me just give you papa pride. You have developed so much and grown into your own person. I’m so proud of you.” Katy – “You did it [the song] such justice.” Luke – “That is such a tough song to sing. We’ve watched you do that time and time again. We’ve just loved your whole personality.”

Now THIS is how you cover a song. Maddie delivers the performance of the night and one of the highlights of the season with this Beach Boys classic. Smart choice (lots of older Idol voters out there don’t connect to the newer song) and a truly emotional reading. I’d love to see her win the whole thing next week. Grade: A

Going Home – Cade and Michael

Chaz Lipp

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