For the first time ever, there was a three-way on The Voice this Monday. Oh, that’s not as scandalous as it sounds. This is a family show, people! What I mean by that is, during Monday’s Knockout Rounds episode, three contestants, not the usual two, competed against each other. And the reason for this odd-numbered grouping was the mysterious, abrupt, and still-unexplained departure of onetime frontrunner and charismatic street performer Anthony Riley.
The gossip on the Interweb was that Anthony quit because he refused to sing in the Knockouts against powerhouse Mia Z. A few fans on Twitter actually speculated that he was kicked off for controversially dedicating his Battle Rounds victory to imprisoned activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. But a source close to the show shot both of these rumors down, telling Yahoo Music that Anthony had to leave for “personal reasons” — the same vague line uttered by Anthony’s coach, Pharrell Williams, on Monday’s show. (A man claiming to be a friend of Anthony’s, singer-songwriter Jett Prescott, also tweeted about the situation, saying Anthony is ”indeed working through very personal life matters affecting his ability to commit to The Voice” and this had “nothing to do with ‘his ego’ or refusing to compete,” but he didn’t elaborate after that.)
Whatever the reason for Anthony’s exit (he hasn’t tweeted since March 17 or otherwise publicly addressed the issue; hopefully he is OK), this forced three of Pharrell’s team members — Sawyer Fredericks, Paul Pfau, and the above-mentioned Mia Z — into a trio-format Knockout, with two contestants advancing. This definitely put Paul, the weakest performer of the three, at a disadvantage, but the whole situation put Pharrell at an even bigger disadvantage. Anthony was the fastest four-chair-turner in Voice history (he beat Matthew Schuler’s record from Season 5!) and one of Team Pharrell’s strongest players. After losing standout singers like Meghan Linsey and Kimberly Nichole in the Battle Rounds, Pharrell really needed Anthony on his side.
Anyway, the Sawyer/Mia/Paul showdown wasn’t the first performance of Monday night, but since it was historical and all, I’m going to start my recap with that one. All of the singers chose their own songs and received some sage advice from guest mentor Nate Ruess of fun., and on occasion, fun ensued — and least for those who made it through. Here’s what happened…
TEAM PHARRELL: Mia Z vs. Paul Pfau vs. Sawyer Fredericks
Mia went first, and she was giving me some Juliet Simms realness on her cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” Her verses oddly packed much more power than her choruses (usually it’s the other way around), but there was no denying the greatness of her super-high, could-be-heard-from-outer-space falsetto notes. Seriously, those notes were so high, Mia made Adam Levine seem like that dude from the Crash Test Dummies. Blake Shelton made it clear that he wanted to steal Mia, but with Mia’s two-out-of-three odds and a solid performance like this, it seemed pretty unlikely that Blake would get that opportunity.
It seemed unlikely, on the other hand, that any rival coach would want to steal Paul. He didn’t even seem to be trying this Monday. He may as well have just quit along with Anthony and called it a day. I’d enjoyed Paul’s past performances, but his “I Don’t Need No Doctor” lacked energy and oomph. Paul may not need a doctor, but he needs a band; this was not a solo-star moment, and he completely ignored Nate’s advice to rely less on his guitar. Christina Aguilera told Paul he left the competition “wide open” for the other two, and she was right. I bet at this point, Pharrell was really regretting picking Paul over Meghan Linsey in the Battle Rounds. That was a major mistake.
Sawyer, unlike Paul, actually set aside his guitar for his cover of Howie Day’s “Collide,” and it was a risk that paid off. Sawyer’s warm and inviting voice was front-and-center, allowing for a vulnerable, sensitive, and just downright gorgeous performance. I liked this a lot more than Howie’s original, actually. Even when Sawyer was just standing there, solitary and stationary behind his mic stand, I was riveted. He drew me in. Christina called Sawyer a “genetic genius.” I just called him the clear victor of this sing-off. Sawyer had to share that honor with the also-worthy Mia, due to the unusual circumstances, but at least Pharrell made two sound decisions here, for once.
WINNERS: Mia and Sawyer
TEAM XTINA: Ashley Morgan vs. Sonic
Ashley wasn’t playing when she took on Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker”; much like Heart’s Ann Wilson, Pat is a rock goddess whose catalog should be tackled by advanced singers only. But really, Ashley is only technically advanced. She didn’t hit a single bum note Monday, but her performance lacked grit, passion, ferocity, personality. To use one of Blake’s go-to adjectives, Ashley was not badass. And if you’re going to sing a Benatar barnstormer, then you have to be badass. There’s just no faking it.
Sonic had more technical issues than Ashley (she’s deaf in one ear, so she understandably had trouble hearing herself), but her fiery, bluesy, sexy rendition of Alicia Keys’s “A Woman’s Worth” positively oozed personality. The super Sonic was badass to the bone, and she rendered Ashley instantly forgettable. Ashley may have the pipes, but she needs to grow a personality and establish her identity. Sonic is ready right now, and this woman proved her worth tonight.
TEAM BLAKE: Brian Johnson vs. Sarah Potenza
I’d pegged Brian as a churchy, old-fashioned singer, perhaps more cut out for CCM than for rock or pop. But he showed another side of himself doing James Morrison’s “Nothing Ever Hurt Like You” (which, as I noted earlier, he selected himself). The smoldering, upbeat tune made Brian seem a little hipper, a little more sophisticated, a little more current, and a little less vanilla. He brought some actual flavor to this.
Still, the round completely belonged to the extremely flavorful Sarah. In another Voice first, she sang the song of a former Voice contestant: Season 7 runner-up Matt McAndrew’s iTunes-topping “Wasted Love.” And Matt, Sarah’s favorite Voice contestant of all time, was even in the studio audience, cheering her on! Now, I know I just called Brian “churchy,” but it was Sarah who really took The Voice to church this Monday. She so completely made this song her own, singing it with such conviction and heart, that I could imagine her having a No. 1 iTunes hit with it herself. It was nice to see Brian get a second chance when Adam stole Brian for his team, but I’m still declaring Sarah the true winner tonight.
WINNER: Sarah / STOLEN: Brian (by Adam)
TEAM ADAM: Clinton Washington vs. Nathan Hermida
Clinton gave a tastefully restrained performance of Hunter Hayes’s “Wanted,” taking Adam and Nate’s less-is-more advice. (“I’d rather be moved by something than impressed,” Nate explained.) Clinton delivered a strong but not over-the-top vocal. Would it be enough? (Spoiler alert: No. No, it would not.)
Seventeen-year-old Nathan didn’t quite have the chops to pull off Sam Smith’s “Leave Your Lover,” and not just because his extreme youth presumably made it difficult for him to dig into the emotional material. Nathan’s enunciation was also off, and too much of this song was in a falsetto that he never seemed quite comfortable with. Still, there was just something about this kid that I liked. I found him interesting. So I wasn’t mad that Adam picked Nathan. But I was mad that no one stole Clinton. Clinton could have been a contender.
TEAM BLAKE: Meghan Linsey vs. Travis Ewing
Remember how I said Pharrell must have been feeling foolish earlier? Well, he must have really been kicking himself after watching Meghan, the one that got away, sing on the same night that the contestant who beat her in the Battles, Paul Pfau, got the boot. I’m still not sure if it’s the wisest idea for Meghan, formerly one-half of popular country duo Steel Magnolia, to keep distancing herself from her built-in country music fanbase… but as Pharrell himself put it, she proved she’s “worthy” of singing rock ‘n’ soul when she covered Aretha this week. She held nothing back, and she was a natural woman and natural talent from head to toe. Pharrell should have never doubted her.
As for Travis, I’ve always liked him and I was glad when he was stolen in last week’s Battle Rounds, but Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Want to Be” was such a terrible song choice this week. I remember being so intrigued and impressed by his radically flipped cover of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” during the Blind Auditions; that was the Travis I wanted to see again, but I never did. Maybe that cool performance was just a fluke. Travis’s Gavin cover was totally unoriginal, a by-the-book/paint-by-numbers remake, and he sounded desperate, semi-shouting the song in some vain attempt to outperform Meghan. But he could not steal Meghan’s thunder. And no one stole him, either.
TEAM XTINA: Kimberly Nichole vs. Koryn Hawthorne
Surprisingly, this was the most evenly matched round of the night. Even though Kimberly is a thirtysomething club-circuit pro and Koryn is an inexperienced teen, both of them brought their A-game to the stage. Kimberly vamped it up and worked her “Rock Ballerina” magic in her tutu to Sting’s “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free.” But Koryn was a revelation doing Pink’s “Try” and trying her damnedest to prove that she deserved to be in the Live Playoffs just as much as her more seasoned rival. Thankfully, Pharrell stole Koryn, and both ladies advanced. And just like that, Team Pharrell was back in the game.
WINNER: Kimberly / STOLEN: Koryn (by Pharrell)
Come back Tuesday, when the Knockout Rounds continue apace. The good news is — as far as I know — no one else has dropped out of the competition, so all of the Knockouts will be back to duo format. But bad things will still come in twos, because great singers will surely be knocked out by the episode’s end. See you then.