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James Taylor compares 'Voice' contestant Toneisha Harris to Streisand and Aretha

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·10 min read
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It’s not every day that a legend like James Taylor agrees to mentor a TV singing competition. And it’s certainly not every day that a legend like James Taylor compares a TV singing competition contestant to legends like Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin. But that is exactly what happened Monday on The Voice, when “Mega-Mentor” James heard Team Blake diva Toneisha Harris’s masterful cover of Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” How sweet it is to be loved by him, indeed.

On a night packed with many great singers (and many tough choices faced by the coaches), James — who signed on to advise Season 18’s Knockout Rounds after producers apparently pursued him for years — was generous with his praise. He seemed thrilled to be on the set, actually stating it was an “honor” for him to appear on The Voice, which he called “hands-down, the most positive and effective” talent show on television. He was also impressed by Toneisha’s Knockouts opponent, Cedrice (whom Blake Shelton had stolen during the Battle Rounds), describing this pairing as “what singing is all about.”

But while James loved Cedrice’s attitude and gratitude and likened her vocal “fluidity and dexterity” on another Rihanna song, “Love on the Brain,” to Baked Alaska — “warm and piercing at the same time” — he truly had Toneisha on the brain. “There’s an effortlessness about it,” he said of the 44-year-old soul belter’s powerful vocal style. “I’d compare her with Streisand, or I’d compare her with Aretha. She’s really something. What a beautiful voice!” Toneisha, one of the contestants most excited to work with James — she could barely even enter the rehearsal room, she was so giddy — couldn’t help but tear up as James encouragingly embraced her.

Over on the main stage, Toneisha did James proud and lived up to his hype with a flawless, finale-worthy tour de force that had all four coaches leaping to their feet. Of course she won this Knockout — but that was a shame for Cedrice, one of this season’s most compelling performers, who probably would’ve prevailed if she’d been pitted against just about anyone else.

But as it turned out, Kelly Clarkson, who once declared Cedrice the “hottest woman alive,” apparently still had love for Cedrice on her brain — because she swooped in for the Steal. This now makes Kelly Cedrice’s third coach of the season. (“You have to stop doing this to me!” Cedrice laughed with relief.) But maybe the third time will be the charm. Regardless, I am sure that James Taylor was pleased with how this all turned out.

So for now, we know that both Toneisha and Cedrice are moving on to the Live Playoffs (which likely will not be “live” at all, since, like rival show American Idol, The Voice will have to conduct of the rest of this season remotely due to coronavirus concerns). But Monday also featured the series’ first-ever four-way Knockout — sort of Season 18’s version of the Island of Misfit Toys, similar in intention to the failed Comeback Stage rounds of recent seasons, with four contestants who lost their respective Battles giving it one last go. With no applicable Saves or Steals, only one of these four singers would advance via this week’s pubic vote. Let’s recap that quadruple-headed monster showdown, before reviewing the other normal Knockouts of the night:

ALL TEAMS: Todd Michael Hall (Team Blake) vs. Nelson Cade III (Team Legend) vs. Michael Williams (Team Nick) vs. Samantha Howell (Team Kelly)

Old-school rocker Todd sang first, and while classic rock does tend to do well with the graying terrestrial TV audience, this performance was laughable. Maybe if he’d covered Queen’s “Somebody to Love” he might’ve had a shot, but by doing OneRepublic’s song by the same title, Todd demonstrated just how corny and out-of-step he really is. He did hit most of the notes — that is, until that helium-high chorus, which was screechier than a sack of cats — but he had absolutely no emotional connection to the lyrics, and he came off like an actor in a second-string dinner theater production of Rock of Ages. If millennials and Gen Z kids think rock ‘n’ roll is just uncool music that their grandparents dig... well, hokey performances like Todd’s are the reason why.

Moving on. John Legend warned Nelson that a four-way Knockout performance would require some “fireworks,” but I welcomed Nelson’s chill, mellow cover of Daniel Cesar’s “The Best Part” after Todd’s ridiculous showboating. Nelson hit a nice groove here, and his performance was soooo Team Legend. But would this be enough? Eh, probably not.

Michael Williams’s cover of Calum Scott’s “You Are the Reason” was pleasant and vocally controlled, but not a standout by any means. So, this cleared the way for Samantha — the four-way Knockout’s only female singer and only country contestant — to win by a landslide. “Always on My Mind” was a genius choice: a song all of America loves, and a song that showcased the vintage-Dolly Opry sweetness in Samantha’s voice. If the way the studio audience roared for her bell-clear high notes was any indication of how America will vote, then she was the clear victor here.

WINNER: We will soon find out (but probably Samantha)

TEAM LEGEND: Thunderstorm Artis vs. Mandi Castillo

Thunderstorm and Mandi were both four-chair auditioners, but that’s where their similarities end. Latin pop diva Mandi dedicated an emotional but straightahead rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” to her father, who is battling lymphoma, while Thunderstorm took the risk of performing a radical remake of his own coach’s “Preach.”

There was no doubt that Mandi delivered the technically stronger and more competitive vocal; Kelly said Mandi “came to win,” and Blake said Mandi “swung for the fences.” But where was the artistry? Thunderstorm’s performance was so intriguing that the great James Taylor said he felt he had “something in common” with Thunderstorm — which just might be the highest praise any aspiring singer-songwriter could receive. And John, who normally thinks contestants covering his own songs is his “Achilles heel,” was totally pleased with how Thunderstorm switched up “Preach” on acoustic guitar.

Thunderstorm has been such a frontrunner that I was shocked when John, who’s been making frankly baffling decisions all season, chose Mandi instead. Thankfully, Nick Jonas stole Thunderstorm. Nick claimed this had been his secret sneaky strategy all along, which I don’t believe for one second — but however it came about, this was a perfect storm of events that kept Nick and one of the season’s most interesting artists in the game.

WINNER: Mandi Castillo / STOLEN: Thunderstorm Artis moves to Team Nick

TEAM NICK: Arei Moon vs. Jon Mullins

Both contestants made dedications to their beloved spouses — Arei doing former Voice coach Alicia Keys’s “You Don’t Know My Name,” Jon taking on Ed Sheeran’s familiar wedding-reception ballad “Thinking Out Loud.” Jon had a solid and soulful vocal... but even Blake noted that he “turned it up a couple of notches” because Arei was such a tough act to follow and thus brought out Jon’s competitive spirit.

Arei was a revelation and practically at a Grammy-performance level, owning the moment. Sexy and confident, this girl was on fire, indeed. Nick even called her a “superstar” before making the easy decision to keep her. Arei’s husband is one lucky man. And now it’s looking like Nick is one lucky coach.

WINNER: Arei Moon

TEAM KELLY: Tayler Green vs. Micah Iverson

I was shocked by how the coaches reacted to this pairing. Yes, Tayler did a lovely job with “Time After Time,” expertly adapting it to her deep and rich voice, which differs so much from Cyndi Lauper’s. She made the classic ‘80s ballad sultry and soulful, and there was a tenderness and ache to her delivery that felt real and raw.

But Micah’s performance of Halsey’s “Graveyard” — an ambitious song choice, given its rapid, breathless syncopation — was modern and cool, very the 1975 (the band, not the year). He made it even darker and moodier than the original, and he effectively translated Halsey’s strong female point of view to his own narrative. It actually felt like his song. (Side note: Getting to see Micah and James during rehearsals was pretty amazing and surreal. “I love that James Taylor is playing Halsey right now — it’s my dream!” gasped Kelly.)

But all of coaches preferred Tayler, claiming that her song choice was the superior vocal showcase. Blake gave her a standing ovation, and John called her “mesmerizing… everything about your delivery said, ‘I’m a star and I deserve to be on this stage.’” I was surprised by these critiques… and even more surprised when Kelly went with her “gut feeling” and picked Micah anyway. Micah looked very surprised, as did Kelly’s fellow coaches, but I think she made the smart long-haul decision. I just wish Tayler had been stolen, because she too deserved to stay. A conflicted Kelly slammed her forehead onto her chair’s desk as Tayler exited stage left and Blake glowered in disbelief.

WINNER: Micah Iverson

TEAM NICK: Allegra Miles vs. Jacob Miller

I thought teenage Allegra was biting off more than she could chew with Sia’s “Chandelier,” but because of her past struggles with depression, she related to its dark lyrics. “Her connection to the song is clear,” Nick attested. She still had her usual diction issues, but the pain in her imperfect performance was palpable and believable; she sounded like a broken woman, in the best possible way.

Jacob’s folksy acoustic cover of Post Malone’s “Better Now” wasn’t a vocal masterclass, but it was a classic case of an artist “making a song his own.” Even James Taylor marveled during rehearsal over how Jacob “took the song to a new place… He’s got something.” This felt so special, a breakout moment, almost too good for The Voice. Kelly gasped, “Wow!” as she jumped to her feet after Jacob’s main-stage performance. But unfortunately, this was not Kelly’s decision to make.

For the same reason that I would have picked Thunderstorm over Mandi and Micah over Tayler — originality and artistry — I would have gone with Jacob. But Nick could not deny Allegra’s impact. Oh well. I hope Nick makes good on that promise to record with Jacob someday.

WINNER: Allegra Myles

TEAM KELLY: Mandi Thomas vs. Anaya Cheyenne

This may have been the most brutal montage in Voice history. While Mandi got a good amount of screentime for her barnstorming cover of Maren Morris’s “My Church,” with Kelly raving, “This song is rangy, and you made it even rangier,” poor Anaya’s performance wasn’t shown at all. Host Carson Daly didn’t even mention her name, and there wasn’t even a caption; I literally had to look up Team Kelly’s lineup on the NBC website to figure out who Mandi’s opponent was. This was strange, considering that Anaya had received a lot of attention earlier this season and had fared well in the Battles, so I’m not sure what happened here. It was a tough lesson for a 16-year-old kid to learn, but hey, that’s showbiz.

WINNER: Mandi Thomas

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