Watching "American Idol's" Salt Lake City episode Wednesday night, I noticed two trends: Season 13 has contestants with the best stage names since Sundance Head and Normund Gentle, and it has enough guitars to make Season 9 look like that a cappella competition, "The Sing-Off."
First, the name game: In the course of Wednesday's two hours, we met singers with awesome surnames like Wolfe and Thrasher (and one whose last name was pronounced "Awful"); girls with awesome-er first names like Tiquila, Kassandra, Kylee, and Paisley; and one guy who just called himself "Fish." (No, he wasn't the lead singer of Marillion, though that would've been cool, too.) Come on, who wouldn't want to buy an album by someone named Paisley Van Patten or Austin Wolfe? Or even Julie Offill?
Second: many of these contestants, by various names, played guitars, proving that the "G" in "WGWG" can now stand for "Girl" as well. There were guitar players of all sizes, shapes, and colors in the SLC audition room this week. While this is the first "Idol" season that has allowed contestants to try out with guitars, it almost seems like guitar-playing is a requirement now. What a difference a season makes.
Not that I'm complaining, of course. Thirty golden tickets were doled out in Salt Lake, mostly to six-string-strummers, and many of those contestants, by any name, were real ones to watch. These were the episode's standout auditions:
Austin Wolfe, 16 – First of all, this above-mentioned girl had the best name of the night. Maybe the Best. Name. Ever. "Why can't I have that name? That's just a showbiz name," said judge Harry Connick Jr. And Austin had a showbiz voice to match. Her performance of Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive" was sexy, earthy, and intense without being over-the-top, and the judges were impressed. Jennifer Lopez called Austin "the whole package," and Harry compared her to Paramore's Hayley Williams. To paraphrase Paramore's latest hit, they were into her.
Kylee Adamson, 18 – A real-life lumberjack, Kylee came in swinging with the Alison Krauss version of "When You Say Nothing at All," and the judges had plenty of positive things to say about her sweet country twang and spunky personality. "You had me immediately," proclaimed Keith Urban. Let's see now if this lumberjack can avoid getting the ax in Hollywood. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)
Keith Sanders, 26 – A cool cat with a mellow personality and folksy guitar style, Keith didn't seem to believe much in himself, telling the judges, "I'm a decent singer, but I didn't know I was good enough to be on 'American Idol.'" Humility has worked well on this show before — remember when aw-shucksy future champ Kris Allen said he "wasn't the best singer"? — but Harry told him, "I think you're a lot better than you're giving yourself credit for." We'll soon see if this guy's humble attitude is just due to sweet newbie shyness or an actual self-confidence problem that'll hold him back.
Tessa Norman, 19 – Her "Mamma Knows Best" was a little strident, but Tessa's smile was, according to Harry, "ridiculous"; her colorful style was like something straight out of a Seventeen spread; and if it were possible to bottle her sassiness, I would sell it by the crateload and become richer than Simon Fuller. (I'd also save a few bottles for myself.) "You're a star," J.Lo told Tessa.
Alex Preston, 20 – OK, just Alex just won, right? This cut-from-plaid-cloth classic WGWG and self-described "band geek" had everything needed for "Idol" success: good hair, denim-on-denim fashion sense, a surprisingly decent original song that sounded like an Ed Sheeran outtake, advanced jazzy-guitar skills that wowed Harry and Keith, and a soft vocal tone that wooed Jennifer and probably a lot of ladies watching at home. Oh, and did I mention he's the cousin of Jo Dee Messina, too? All those other WGWGs in the running this season (Ethans Thompson and Harris, John Fox, Sam Woolf, Keith London, David Luning) should be worried right about now.
Samantha Calmes, 25 – I wasn't really feeling this granola girl. First she did her own talky/rappy throwaway song, "From Birth" — which for some reason Keith called "original," even though he later compared her to Macklemore. (Um, no.) And then, when the judges asked Samantha to do a different song, she sang the theme to "The Jeffersons" and didn't do it nearly as well as "The Voice's" Cole Vosbury. But apparently the judges don't watch "The Voice" (perhaps their 19 Entertainment bosses use parental controls to block NBC from their TVs?), so they thought this was a totally unique song selection. "I wasn't impressed by your voice; I was impressed by the choices that you made," said Harry. And so, Samantha got a golden ticket. Really, the thing I liked most about her was her fanny pack.
Lebryant Crew, 24 – A minister with the dream to become the "first preacher to win 'American Idol'" (I'm actually really surprised that hasn't happened yet), Lebryant brought all his pulpit razzle-dazzle to the audition room. His cover of Little Walter's "My Baby" wasn't extraordinary vocally, but he did have a certain vivacious presence. "You're a performer, and I respond well to performers," said Harry. Let's see how Lebryant performs in Hollywood.
D.J. Bradley, 20 – While the judges were on the fence about this kid, I think the girls who vote for this show are going to go cuckoo for his Flock of Seagulls hair and awkward charm. Of course, one person's awkward charm is another person's just plain old awkwardness, and while J.Lo thought D.J.'s Adele cover was "mysterious," Harry and Keith thought he seemed "disinterested." But somehow he got through. I bet female "Idol" viewers won't be disinterested in D.J.!
Kenzie Hall, 16 – Kenzie's enormous perma-smile during her audition was a bit distracting (it didn't seem appropriate for the song she was singing, John Mayer's "I'm Gonna Find Another You"). But she had an enormous voice, and she knew what to do with it. She also knew what to do with her guitar: Harry was impressed when she played a diminished chord. I was smiling myself by the time she was done and she received three yesses.
Paisley Van Patten – PVP was my MVP for the night. While I tend to be put off by sob stories on "Idol," hers moved me: At age 15, she landed a record deal in Nashville, but she blew it and lost everything due to her addiction to alcohol, and she eventually moved back home to Utah to get sober. It was a backstory that seemed to resonate with Keith, a recovering addict himself. Then Paisley explained that her lame fiancé told her he'd leave her if she tried out for "Idol." (Seriously? Not cool. I can't believe Paisley even slightly defended him to the judges.) Anyway, luckily Paisley made the right choice by ditching that dude and auditioning for "Idol," because her cover of Faith Hill's "When the Lights Go Down" was superb. She sang with heart and pain, pouring herself into the song, but she didn't rely on overblown histrionics. It was just real. "You seem like a gentle person who's found some happiness," said Harry. Then Paisley lightened the mood with a Cher impression. And I was moonstruck. I love this girl.
C.J. Harris, 22 – C.J., whose father died last year of a heart attack, sang a no-frills, from-the-gut version of the Allman Brothers' "Soul Shine." It wasn't particularly amazing vocally or guitar-wise, but there was something emotionally stirring about his performance. "It wasn't perfect, but I really liked it. I love you. I like that voice coming out of you," said Jennifer. "You sing because have to sing, not because you want to sing," said Keith. C.J. then ran out sobbing to tell his family and girlfriend that he'd made it through. By the way, his girlfriend's name is BRITNEY SLAPPY. That's another name I certainly could see in lights.
Tiquila Wilson, 24 – "Tiquila is in the building! Make some noise!" screamed this funeral-home worker, in a voice loud enough to wake the dead. Tiquila's audition of Adele's "Someone Like You" was a little shouty, but if she can learn to control her instrument, she has the potential to be one of Season 13's standout divas. If anything, she'll probably make for good TV in Hollywood Week.
Emily Rottler, 17 – This guitar girl covered the Zutons' "Valerie" (it's by the Zutons, people; Amy Winehouse recorded it later), and her lilting voice was incredibly pleasant to the ear. Her audition left me feeling a little gooey and fuzzy inside. "You're the real thing," said Jennifer. "When I was listening to you, I was thinking this is going to be a really good year on 'American Idol,'" said Harry. I think Harry is right. It's been really good year so far.
Dexter Roberts, 22 – This farmhand everyman didn't look like a star, so when he opened his mouth to sing "I Like to Drive" by Season 9 third-placer Casey James, I was shocked. His voice was great! Keith loved the blues and bluegrass elements in Dexter's voice — like a Dexter's Laboratory of musical influences, so to speak. (Heh.) "You seem like the kind of guy who sings to get through the day…it sounds very authentic to me," said Harry. Three yesses unsurprisingly ensued.
Briston Maroney, 15 – Playing a vintage Gibson that once belonged to his great-grandfather, a Nashville recording artist, Briston looked incredibly nervous and didn't have the moves like Jagger, but I dug his performance of the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." He had that adenoidal, Jack White-ish, angsty thing going on. Keith thought the voice was gimmicky, saying, "I would hope that there'd be other colors that'd come out…but you've got something really cool." Harry said, "I'm just worried you're going to lose your voice." Briston joked, "It sounds a lot worse than it feels!" Let's hope Briston's voice lasts through Hollywood Week, because he did get want he wanted this time: a golden ticket.
Fish, 19 – Fish performed Ed Sheeran's "The A-Team" quite swimmingly. (Sorry.) I wish producers had shown more of him, and hadn't relegated him to an auditions montage. I hope Fish stays afloat in Hollywood. (Sorry. Again.)
Johnny Newcomb, 16 – Johnny credited his audition song, "Last Kiss," to Pearl Jam, even though it was originally recorded in 1962 by Wayne Cochran and covered two years later by J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers. Ah, youth. Well, it was extremely obvious that Johnny had only heard the Pearl Jam version, since his performance sounded like an Eddie Vedder impersonation. "I think you're highly impressionable because of your age; you're emulating your heroes," said Harry, who called Johnny "derivative" and said he wasn't ready for "Idol." Johnny convinced the judges to let him do another song, and he sang Adele/the SteelDrivers' "If It Hadn't Been." Honestly, he still sounded like Eddie Vedder. Maybe he's just a massive Pearl Jam fan. Jennifer, who'd agreed with Harry, suddenly had a change of heart (she was being way too nice in Salt Lake City in general), and gushed, "I think he's too good to say no to!" Harry stuck to his guns, but Keith's second yes pushed Johnny through. But I don't think he will last very long…unless he can figure out how to make songs his own, and not just make songs Eddie's.
Carmen Delgina, 24 – The best part of Carmen's audition was the fact that she brought her dad, Wonder Mike of pioneer hip-hop crew the Sugar Hill Gang, who delighted the waiting-room crowd by spitting some bars of "Rapper's Delight." He also delighted J.Lo when he met her and said, "I am Wonder Mike, and I'd like to say hello!" Carmen kept it old-school '80s with her cover of "Tainted Love" (though her version owed more to Gloria Jones's soulful 1964 original than Soft Cell's new wave remake). However, her performance wasn't as much of a delight; it was good, but not great. "I don't think your vocals are strong enough to get you to the end," said Harry. Keith said she seemed disconnected and unconfident. But...they put her through. Would they have done that if her dad wasn't Wonder Mike? I wonder…
Kassandra Castaneda, 16 – Kassandra made a weird first impression by giving J.Lo her uncle's phone number (ick/LOL), but quickly won over J.Lo once she started singing Adele's "Chasing Pavements." Her voice was gorgeous, with a warm, buttery tone. Oddly, Harry was less impressed, saying he didn't like Kassandra's runs. ("There are people who are better than you at that," he barked.) Thankfully, the other judges gave Kassandra a shot. But if she goes far and she makes it to the live shows, it's going to get pretty awkward if her uncle ends up sitting in the audience. Security!
Casey Thrasher, 22 – Casey was the obviously pimped contestant of the night. The episode opened with scenes of him giving his baby a bottle, and closed with him in the Chamber, praying to God for his big break. We soon found out that he's a father to two little tots (presumably a single father, since there was no mention of the kids' babymama), living with his aunt and just barely scraping by. Casey's cover of Brooks & Dunn's "Believe" was, well, totally believable. He really poured his heart into the song, and J.Lo seemed to be on the verge of tears as he performed. "There's so much feeling there, a real voice there. I believe what you are singing," she marveled. "Your drive is extremely strong," said Harry. With Casey's all-American good looks, sympathetic backstory, daddy cred, and producer pimping, he seems like a shoo-in for the top 30.
Only one more audition episode to go! Join "Idol" Thursday as the show heads to Omaha looking for a few more Hollywood Week hopefuls to add to the 193 people who've already received golden tickets. I'm sure many of those Omaha hopefuls will be playing guitars, too. See you then.