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American Idol was “through to Hawaii” this Sunday, but there was trouble in paradise for half of the hopefuls, as over the course of a three-hour “Final Judgment” episode, 20 of the top 40 contestants were quickly sent back to the mainland. One contestant, however, that we’ll hopefully be seeing a lot more of is dynamite 24-year showman Uché, whom Lionel Richie dubbed “Mr. Entertainment” and who I think just might be the Adam Lambert of Season 17. (Watch his full Sunday night performance below.)
I first took notice of this openly queer personality-plus — whose influences include Prince, Rick James, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bobby Brown, and other artists who “got that stank” — on this year’s premiere episode. “I’m the kind of performer where you don’t stop looking at me until I’m done,” he proclaimed.
Well, ain’t that the truth. This week, as the contestants performed for a live crowd on a Hawaiian beach, the instant Uché pranced out in sausage-casing leather trousers, a fluffy fun-fur coat, and no shirt, the judges jumped right out of their seats. And then they stayed out of their seats.
Getting his groove on to Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” (a song Adam Lambert did in his season), Uché brought the drama. The neck snaps. The move where he slung his mic stand over his shoulders like a barbell. The moment when he let his hair down, literally, and in a moment a fantabulous hairography whipped his dreads like Willow Smith circa 2010. (This dude really needed a Beyoncé-style windfan. Idol’s prop department was sleeping on the job!) The moment when he dropped to his knees in front of the house band’s guitarist like David Bowie kneeling before Mick Ronson. I wanted the funk, and Uché gave it to me.
That being said, Uché’s vocals, while not quite at a Lambert level, were also much-improved since his polarizing audition, showcasing a crazy range from Satchmo deep notes to dog-whistle shrieks. And Lionel (who cried out, “Oh my God!” when this performance climaxed) took notice. “You let me hear a voice we’d never heard before. You were hitting high notes left and right like it was no big deal. You can’t teach stage presence — that was a natural gift.”
And so, Uché advanced to Monday’s top 20 showcase, and I am already excited to see what he’ll do next. And what he’ll wear next! And maybe he will get his windfan.
Other standout contestants from this season’s talent-packed auditions weren’t so lucky. Among the more notable eliminations were Vietnamese immigrant Myra Tran, the newly engaged Johanna Jones, Kid ‘N Play haircut model and Piggly Wiggly cashier Drake McCain, country singers Tyler Mitchell and Clay Page, strawberry farmer Kason Lester, hippie beach girl Emma Kleinberg, Kai the Singer (who actually just seemed to be coming out of her shell and hitting her stride this week), an over-confident Nate Walker (whose plan to impress Lionel with a Commodores song apparently backfired), spazzy Margie Mays (though her sex-kitten performance of “All About That Bass” will probably land her a job with Post Modern Jukebox), Nick Townsend (who had one of the saddest sob stories of the season, but not one of the strongest voices), and blind teenager Shayy. That last cut seemed to go the deepest, with Shayy’s new Idol friends sobbing over her dismissal and judge Luke Bryan lamenting, “People aren’t going to like us for that one — and I’m not sure I like us.”
Below are the other 19 contestants who made it through after performing for the one person on the show more overdressed for the beach than Uché: Katy Perry, who in one scene accessorized with a sequined hibiscus the size of a basketball and in another scene appeared to be wearing an entire coral reef around her neck. Maybe Uché can borrow one of Katy’s outfits if he makes it to the finale.
Alyssa Raghu, 16: “Dear Future Husband”
Showcasing a previously unseen fun and sassy side can often backfire on this show, but this returning contestant from last season proved that all those dance classes have paid off. “It looks natural, finally,” Katy said of the once-shy Alyssa’s brash Meghan Trainor cover.
Madison Vandenberg, 17: “Who’s Loving You”
“The Next Kelly Clarkson” also seemed extremely comfortable onstage, and she nailed it from the first note. Those Kelly comparisons are apt.
Logan Johnson, 20: “Sorry”
I understand and appreciate this kid’s star appeal and modern vibe — Katy said he seemed like a lost Jonas Brother — but Logan’s Bieber cover was bland (especially coming after last week’s version by the extraordinary Alejandro Aranda), and even randomly singing some of it in Spanish didn’t add much extra spice. This recovering addict is better when he sticks to soul-baring balladry.
Dimitrius Graham, 28: “Latch”
This was another decision I didn’t quite get. The judges griped for about five minutes that Dimitrius has no defined point of view or identity and is too much of a copycat … but they put him through anyway. I feel he got through more because of his backstory than via his performances.
Ashley Hess, 27: “Gone Away”
We hadn’t seen much of Ashley since the fantastic audition that had all of the judges already declaring her the winner, and some of her magic was lost that she was performing this H.E.R. song without the “safety net” of her piano. Lionel noted that she lacked control, Luke said the performance was “sketchy,” and even Ashley agreed. Thankfully, that first audition was great enough, and recent enough in the judges’ memories, that she got a shot. I advise she never leave her piano again.
Laci Kaye Booth, 23: “Georgia on My Mind”
This Americana ingenue continues to captivate, with her perfect mix of indie/quirky girl and Opry-ready country superstar. And she didn’t have to do that much to captivate the crowd. This performance was easy and elegant. “She’s special,” gushed Luke.
Walker Burroughs, 20: “Youngblood”
Walker wisely stayed at his piano, transforming a 5 Seconds of Summer song into sophisticated, sparkling adult-contemporary pop. He does have to work on his stage presence — not easy when you’re always behind a keyboard — but in-house mentor Bobby Bones can help with that, and Walker assured the judges he’s a “very teachable person.”
Ryan Hammond, 25: “A Song for You’
Ryan took Katy’s advice and ditched the churchy vibe for this soulful Donny Hathaway classic suggested by his new boyfriend. He definitely looked and sounded like a heartthrob, but I don’t know if he has the personality or originality to stand out.
Kate Barnette, 23: “Royals”
Kate “brought the funk,” according to Lionel, with this jazzy, disco-guitar, wocka-wocka take on the Lorde megahit. I wish we’d seen this girl’s audition, but I am glad she will be getting more screentime going forward.
Evelyn Cormier, 19: “Roots”
I adore how wild and weird and compelling and kooky this witchy woman is, and I appreciated her Alice Merton song choice. I like Evelyn so much, I may even have to binge-watch her old episodes of 90-Day Fiancé.
Alejandro Aranda, 24: “Yellow”
Leave to this Stevie Nicks-championed bona fide musical genius to figure out a way to uniquely cover an overdone Coldplay song. “I like that you’re a non-stereotypical pop star,” Katy told him. I just hope his awkwardness and shyness won’t hinder him when he gets to the live shows.
Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, 26: “Landslide”
This simple and honest and beautiful performance, dedicated to his parents (from whom Jeremiah is estranged after coming out as gay), was heartbreaking in the best possible way. I thought he too would flounder without his piano, but instead he just seemed even more vulnerable than ever. This was a risk that, for him, paid off. I sincerely hope his parents were watching and listening.
Riley Thompson, 16: “Mama’s Broken Heart”
I like this adorable America’s sweetheart with the old-school country voice, but I fear that it’s a voice that won’t lend itself well to other artists’ material. But there is no doubt that she’s a little star, so the judges decide to “roll the dice” on Riley, making her the youngest singer in the top 20.
Raquel Trinidad, 18: “Rich Girl”
I take issue with Raquel’s dream of being “the first hippie American Idol” (that honor goes to Phillip Phillips), but I love the fact that she did a Hall & Oates song. There needs to be a Hall & Oates Night on this show.
Shawn Robinson, 22: “Rock With You”
The Michael Jackson song choice was ill-timed (as was Madison’s), and this performance a bit weak, but I’ve seen Shawn sparkle before. Hopefully some of that sparkle will come back soon.
Bumbly, 27: “Baby”
The subway singer brought the fire, but we’ve barely seen her all season — or even this week — so I am afraid the producers have set her up as fodder.
Wade Cota, 27: “Work Song”
Wade gave an amazing audition, but he seriously stumbled in Hollywood and lost momentum, so now he is “out of second chances.” His personality grated on me this week, as he seemed to exhibit an ungracious attitude (he was the only contestant not thrilled to be in Hawaii) and willful ignorance (he thought he needed a passport to go to Hawaii and that Pearl Harbor was just a fictional place from a movie). Also, after covering George Ezra last week and Hozier this week — both gruff singers with a tone similar to his own, thus very safe choices — I would like him to do something more outside his comfort zone. But there was no denying that the passion Wade poured into this performance was genuine.
Eddie Island, 25: “Don’t You Worry Child”
This kid’s goofy shtick will soon become tiresome, for sure. Katy noted that the show is not called American Personality, and warned Eddie that he “leans on his vibe too much.” But this was one of his more solid vocals, and there’s no doubt he can charm a crowd. “I love him,” Katy insisted, after all that. “Will America, though?” asked Luke. We shall see.
Laine Hardy, 18: “Come Together”
Laine got cut last season during Final Judgment, so this week, he meant business. While people like Eddie Island were traipsing around the stage barefooted and cargo-shorted, Laine suited up, cleaned up nice, and looked like a baby Elvis. He had the confidence of the King, too. “Y’all ready to party with a Hardy?” he shouted, before delivering a roaring Southern Rock rendition of the Beatles barnstormer. “Am I allowed to have a crush on a contestant?” asked Katy. Apparently Laine Hardy isn’t just a new Laine Hardy, he’s also the new Cade Foehner.
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