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“American Idol” Revs Up With Motor City Music

Contestants try out the songs of Detroit.

photos by Michael Becker/FOX

Big up to Detroit, y’all. American Idol looked to the Motor City for musical inspiration in tonight’s (March 27) performance episode, with mostly great results. But when you’ve got source material that good, it’s hard to mess it up too much. Like Nashville and Memphis, Detroit is one of those cities that has fostered some of the greatest works in American music, from the Motown catalog to Eminem. Yeah, I said it.

Motown giant Smokey Robinson served as the evening’s mentor, noting the city’s music was special because of the individuals. “It’s the people who were creating it. I think that had a great deal to do with the sound,” said Smokey. Translation: it ain’t just anybody who can pop in and be Little Stevie Wonder, OK?

But we’ve got a few people who might be in the neighborhood, as tonight’s show proved. Also, very few ballads, so hooray.

Standout performer Candice Glover was up first, performing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” She kind of picked up on the Gladys Knight vocal template, but added a more syncopated, rocking shuffle that let her show off her arsenal of vocal fireworks, from growls and squeals to dazzling runs. “I never feel like you overpower it too much,” said judge Keith Urban. “I’ve loved watching you come into yourself this season.” 

Now that numbers are dwindling, there will also be lots of duo and trio performances going forward. Country girls Kree Harrison and Janelle Arthur had previously dreamed of doing a duet together, but as they noted, “we just wouldn’t have thought it would be a Madonna song.” Inspired by Jennifer Nettles’ version, the pair was teamed up for the Material Girl’s 1989 hit “Like a Prayer” (possibly her best, IMHO). It was only slightly countrified, mainly because of their combined voices, sticking instead to the original gospel-dance arrangement. It was still a pretty heavenly combo, especially that upward lifting harmony at the end. “I love you girls together, but Kree definitely outshined you,” said Nicki Minaj.

Lazaro Arbos opted for Stevie Wonder’s ebullient “For Once in My Life.” Smokey advised him (correctly) that he was best when he did songs that he actually liked. So Lazaro started it off in ballad mode, quickly switching to a bopping uptempo arrangement that felt more comfortable for him. He’s likeable, so it was probably enough, but he’s just outmatched in the vocal department. “I don’t know if you completely redeemed yourself, but this is far better than last week,” said Randy Jackson. Truth.

Janelle took one of the biggest risks of the night, switching up the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” for a more ballady, country-tinged arrangement. She apparently came up with the idea when she was 14, which is pretty impressive. It was a bold maneuver and one that proved to be very memorable. “I loved that arrangement because it really brought out the angst in that lyric in a way I’ve never heard before,” said Keith. Me too, buddy.

Devin Velez adopted Smokey’s “The Tracks of My Tears,” with a little advice to not get too far behind the beat with his phrasing. It was a near perfect fit for Devin’s rubbery tenor and falsetto, and easily one of the best he’s done all season. He needed it too, considering he’s been lingering near the bottom since voting began. “I love every single choice you made. It felt good, it felt smooth, it felt comfortable for you,” offered Nicki. From the audience, Smokey thought he was “awesome,” so case closed.

Candice, Amber Holcomb and Angie Miller were teamed up for The Supremes and Temptations collaboration “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” Seeing Candice and Amber singing side by side really underscored the former’s incredible abilities and how far Amber still has to go. Angie’s still probably gonna win the whole thing, anyway, if we’re being honest.

Burnell Taylor chose Stevie Wonder’s classic “My Cherie Amour.” Burnell is always interesting (especially in the dressy surgeon all-white getup), but it didn’t feel quite right for some reason. It got Keith up out of his seat, regardless. “You’re so original that it’s really hard to critique,” said Keith.

Angie did “Shop Around,” another Smokey tune. “I need to show America my fun crazy side, with some attitude,” she noted in the video package. It was a big rock arrangement that threatened to overwhelm her and she tried to add a sexiness she hadn’t shown before. She managed to throw a few big notes in at the end, but it was not the game-winner performance we’ve come to expect. Nicki called her out on it, too. “I think you came out today to try to show a different side of Angie that didn’t need to be shown,” said Nicki. “If your thing is not R&B or blues, switch it up and do what you do.”

Stevie Wonder got some more love, when Amber went for “Lately.” It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty strong and basically exactly what you’d expect, I guess. All the judges were on their feet afterward, so I apparently I have no idea what I’m talking about. “That was a tour de force, darlings. It was impeccable,” praised Mariah. If you say so.

Devin, Lazaro and Burnell were stuck together for The Four Tops' “I Can’t Help Myself.”  Vocally, though, it was way off. Somebody—Burnell, maybe?—totally forgot a line at some point, and the whole thing was generally a gigantic mess. Good thing it’s “just for fun.” Nicki wasn’t having it. “I don’t know what that was, but I’m gonna act like I didn’t see or hear it. All three of y’all go, get off the stage.” Ouch. Makes me wonder if Devin will survive the next cut, considering his bottom-three placements.

For her solo performance, Kree chose Aretha Franklin’s “Don’t Play that Song” to close out the night. Smokey noted, with a hint of sadness, that the Queen of Soul was his oldest friend still living. He also said he was going to call Aretha and tell her to watch. So hey, no pressure, right? Fortunately, Kree was more than up to the task, adding a touch of twang to the soulful tune and sounding not unlike the great Trisha Yearwood in the process. “I love that you keep reminding people of the blues and soul roots in country music. You’re not trying to be Aretha. You’re Kree,” said Keith. Yes, yes, more of this, please.

So there you go. Top three, not necessarily based on performance: Kree, Candice and Janelle.

Bottom three, also not entirely on performance: Devin, Burnell and Amber.

What do you guys think?


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