Greetings on this fine evening, Idol nation! Bill King once again tag-teaming in for regular recapper John Kubicek, though I’m told he’ll be back in earnest for the results show Thursday. He’ll also likely be commenting throughout the show, because what can I say, that’s just the kind of guy he is.

The American Idol Top 8 first-time theme, “Back to the Start,” is an interesting one, as the singers will essentially re-audition by performing the very first song that launched their respective journeys. The selections include three original songs, and all but two played guitar during the first go-round. It will be up to them whether they mimic their audition or go in a completely different direction, but a lot of factors are in play.

We’ll be able to see how much each has grown in style, musicality and confidence, and a live performance with a screaming audience of more than just three is certain to factor in. There are also elements that didn’t seem like issues back then (i.e. Sam Woolf’s exact pronunciation of every syllable) that will now highlight a lack of showmanship this late in the game. 

So in addition to commenting on the individual performances and listening to what the judges have to say, I’ll also be issuing my ruling on whether or not this version was better, worse, or equal to the original.

You can get a refresher course and listen to each contestant’s audition by CLICKING HERE. 

Now on to the performances! And remember, the blog is live, so be sure to keep the comments coming at the bottom. THIS … is American Idol!

Welcome Judges and Contestants

We’re kicking things off with the judges’ greatest hits and a look back at audition highlights, some not even involving the Top 8. A Ryan Seacrest baby pic offers the lead in to our live show, and the Idols walk quasi-confidently onto the stage. Sam looks like his smile is made of paper mache. 

Then it’s time for the judges. It’s typical fare, with Jennifer Lopez in a short dress, Harry Connick, Jr., in a sweater, and Keith Urban rocking a T-shirt and sneaks. They’re like uniforms by now. 

In addition to the throwbacks, we’ve got four duets on tap to fill out the allotted time, so chemistry is important, too.

Jessica Meuse Re-Sings an Original

We first met Jessica in Atlanta, and Harry fondly remembers her intensity and shoulder movements. J-Lo asks if she wore all black, and Jess says yes, if by “all black” you mean blue jeans and a red shirt with a black sweater covering her shoulders.

Jessica was apparently a fussy child, and that attitude carried over into her original song, the bluesy “Blue-Eyed Lie.” She’s joined by a full band this time, so it’ll be interesting to see if her rasp is lost with the background distractions. I’m honestly not a huge fan of the song, but it’s much bigger, smoother and cleaner than her audition, and it’s nice to see she’s feeling more comfortable in front of the crowd. No goosebumps or anything, but a solid start. 

Keith thinks it was a great way to kick off the show and loves the ferocity in her voice, but he still wants the rest of her body to match the energy in her face, head, and other above-the-neck appendages. J-Lo appreciates the comfort that goes with singing something you wrote and thought it was perfect, and Harry was reminded of Cher from the 70’s. He calls the presentation cool, but he disagrees with Keith about the lower-body movements because intensity can compensate. He also notes a dead spot in the song.

Verdict: Better than the original

C.J. Harris Attempts to Find His Voice

C.J.’s Salt Lake City audition was a bit all over the place, with his rendition of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Soulshine” barely earning him a golden ticket. He didn’t hit his stride until the end of Hollywood, so he has a lot of ground to make up if he’s going to survive the week. The fact that he’s batting in the No. 2 hole doesn’t bode well for him, either. At least his girlfriend sleeps through all long car rides, too. 

He was overwhelmed by emotion the first time, and while he keeps it in check, it’s still just OK. There’s some head bobbing, but no one who isn’t related to him or another contestant is jumping to their feet after this one. It’s cleaner, though still not totally on point.

J-Lo’s heart was touched by this way-better performance, and C.J.’s gift is his soul. Harry can tell that C.J.’s been working on the judges’ criticisms and says this one “came close,” and Keith thought it was reined in and an improvement. Ryan tries to make C.J. feel better by letting two stalkers come onstage for hugs.

Verdict: Comparable to the original

Jena and Alex Need a Reason

Our first duet of the night pairs Jena Irene and Alex Preston for what will seemingly be an original take on Pink’s and Nate Ruess’ “Just Give Me a Reason.” After all, these two are both known for making songs their own, so it will be interesting to see how they collaborate. On a side note, Alex’s shirt is hideous and that scarf isn’t helping matters. 

It starts off strong, with a goose bump-inducing intro and initial harmonization. They lose me once the song picks up pace though. They’re a decent pairing, but she spends all her time trying not to overpower him and it’s boring after that awesome beginning. His more subtle tone prevented her from really belting it out. 

No judge commentary or reaction to the duets, so on to the next one.

Sam Knows All the Words

Sam Woolf won the judges over with his sped-up version of Ed Sheeran’s “Lego House,” but we didn’t know about the over-pronunciation thing back then. And his shyness hasn’t cleared up at all, which is ironic because his grandparents recall how big his head was as a child. But I guess literalness doesn’t translate figuratively.

This time, Sam is slowing things down, and while I appreciate the more soulful performance, I still get hung up on the the fact that we hear each and every hard R. But if you’re a Sam fan, you love it. 

Harry thinks the wrong word — confidence — is being thrown around with Sam. The real word is “connection,” and he urges Sam to pick someone in the crowd and sing to that person. Keith touts Sam’s continual improvement and looseness, but adds that there’s no soul in perfection. J-Lo’s judging about Sam’s magic is interrupted by screaming fans, and Harry tells the audience to shut up.

Verdict: Better than the original

Jessica and Caleb Drag Hearts

Jessica Meuse and Caleb Johnson are singing “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” by Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, and while the rushed introduction makes it a bit awkward, they recover nicely.

It’s just fine, though. Nothing special. It seems like none of the contestants know how to blend their voices with another person who might not be on the same level. I wonder what a Caleb-Jena duet would sound like?

Malaya Brings Her Dad

Malaya Watson is up next, and her dad accompanies her on stage. There’s no montage, and I’m wondering if their video playback is down? Nope, there it is. Just an in-person interlude, I guess.

Malaya has been working her way up steadily after a rough go in the early rounds. She’s re-tackling “Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin, and the judges are excited to see her transformation. Unfortunately, she botches the opening by singing at the wrong time, and she struggles to get back on track after that. 

She hits her stride about halfway through, but I still feel like her big voice played better in the smaller audition room than this big stage, at least on this song. She ends on a high note, though.

Keith says “Malaya is on fire,” but he makes them rhyme (paying attention, Sam?). He praises her control, and J-Lo calls her a beautiful blossoming flower who is going to be a superstar that runs away with the competition. Really? Easy, Jenny. Harry says she’s doing everything right, but he reminds her that she has access to the best musicians in the world and she needs work hard with them to perfect her runs. 

Verdict: Comparable/Not as good as the original

Ryan gives us some real-time results that prove kids under 21 are all stupid. 

Dexter Goes Less-Popular Country Karaoke

Dexter Roberts’ mom constantly dressed him up in various like outfits like weird dog owners (eh-hem! My girlfriend…) dress up their pets. He’s taking on Brett Eldredge’s “One Mississippi,” which is NOT the song we heard him sing during the audition shows. That makes it decidedly difficult to compare…

A song with this melody and backdrop should absolutely give me goose bumps, and it doesn’t. They zoom in disturbingly close to his face, and the crowd goes wild on the last note. It wasn’t for me, but I can see how others might like it. 

J-Lo is ecstatic and notes the new nuances she heard in Dexter’s voice. She loved every little bit about it. Harry commends him for thanking the band and says he sang the heck out of the song. He was touched. Keith says Dexter has grown in leaps and bounds, but warns him against focusing on the sound of his voice and instead to look at better conveying the lyrics. 

Verdict: N/A

Blip on the Radar

Sorry, just had a weird blip where I lost connectivity, so I’ll try and sum up quickly. Malaya Watson and Sam Woolf duet on “Lucky” by Colbie Caillat and Jason Mraz, and it is basically a train wreck. Very few highlights to speak of.

Then Jena Irene is up to sing Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which she awkwardly wowed with during her audition. Her mom tells us that Jena was boy crazy even as a youngster, and now her confidence is brimming with each successive performance. 

This rendition is even more original, and she pretty much slays it. I didn’t get to pay a ton of attention, though, because I was trying to get back online.

Harry is now accustomed to what he once thought was a speech impediment, and he thinks the competition is getting super tight. Keith commends her for making the song her own, as is the trend. J-Lo advises her to come out every week, blow it out of the water, try to win and destroy the competition. 

Verdict: MUCH better than the original

Dexter Roberts and C.J. Harris are Just Alright

The country duo is teaming up for Darius Rucker’s “Alright,” and the title says it all. Except for the harmonies. They are atrocious. Enough said. 

Caleb Re-Rocks the House

Caleb was around during season 10, when he forgot the words in Hollywood and asked for a do over and some water. He feels like he’s changed a lot since then, but how much has he changed since he auditioned with “Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin? This is also NOT the song we saw him audition with.

Caleb, who was a precious entertainer even as a child, turns in a solid, mellowed-down (for Caleb) and soulful performance, compete with that School of Rock-personified edge. It’s very good, if not a little bit boring, and while he and Jena are clearly the best vocalists in the competition, I don’t feel blown away. Great, but not a “moment” for me.

Keith calls him a rock and roll viking who delivers every week, J-Lo thinks he was born to do this, and while mixing in praise, Harry wants to see just ONE song that isn’t loud. He wants something with more heart.

Verdict: N/A

Will Alex Close Out with Originality?

Alex Preston gets the pimp spot, and the audition song we saw was his original tune “Fairy Tales.” It was my favorite of the original songs, but who knows what he’ll be performing. And I hope he changed outfits since his duet. 

I take that back, because now he’s wearing a weird flowered button down with a sky blue sport coat and a boutonniere. On the bright side though, we will be hearing “Fairy Tales,” which he wrote about a girl who broke his heart. As for his childhood, he’s always wanted to be a musician.  

He’s just a strange guy, and his facial expressions are mildly disturbing, but it sounds spectacular. Unlike the other original songs, I could imagine hearing this on the radio. Methinks Alex just had himself a moment.

Jennifer loves that he stays true to himself and that he added a new move to his repertoire, Harry starts to say something and then Keith interrupts to say it was cool that people in the audience who didn’t know the song were singing along. Ahhh, time constraints.  

Verdict: Much better than the original

For me, Alex won the night, followed by Caleb and Jena. C.J. was easily the worst, with Sam and Dexter/Jessica rounding out my bottom three (only Jessica because she went first). Ryan gives us more “real time” results, this time proving that voters are stupid no matter what their age, as over/under 21 have have Dexter No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. 

Who were your favorites? Who won the night, and who lost? Who is in your bottom three, and who deserves to go home? Tune in Thursday to find out the answer, and witness Daughtry’s Idol return!

You can watch American Idol every Wednesday and Thursday on FOX.

(Image courtesy of FOX)

Bill King

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV

Emmy-winning news producer & former BuddyTV blogger. Lover of Philly sports, Ned, Zoe, Liam and Delaine…not in that order