"The Voice" Season 6 Playoffs wrapped Tuesday night with semifinals performances by Team Usher — meaning that now, finally, we have our top 12 headed to the Live Playoffs that begin next week.
It's a bit of a bummer, after so many weeks of Blind Auditions, Battle Rounds, more Battle Rounds, and non-live Playoffs, that the live shows will only go on for five weeks — with double eliminations every week between now and the finale. But you know what else is a bummer? When Usher made his decision this Tuesday as to which three contestants to send to those live shows, he made one glaring omission.
Sure, this was a tough call; with really no weak links on Usher's team, it was inevitable that he'd be sending home two great vocalists, even if he drew their names out of his raccoon hat. But maybe he should have pulled names out of a hat. Because then, maybe, Stevie Jo would have stayed.
Sorry for the spoiler only three paragraphs in. But yes, Stevie sang B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone" this Tuesday, and the song turned out to be prophetic…because now, well, he is gone. Gone too soon. And that's a shame. While Stevie wasn't the overall best singer among Usher's five semifinalists (that would be — here's another spoiler alert — Josh Kaufman), he was definitely the most interesting.
And that's my biggest beef with this "Voice" season: the lack of, for lack of a better word, "interestingness." Season 2 had Jamar Rogers, who mixed alternative rock and R&B in an inventive way, and Juliet Simms, a Warped Tour punk/glam goddess who once performed wearing angel wings. Season 3 offered an abundance of interesting-contestant riches: ethereal girl Melanie Martinez, Britrocker Terry McDermott, cool cat Nicholas David, "bam bam" showman Cody Belew, and another rock 'n' soul powerhouse, Amanda Brown. Season 4 starred the ultimate quirky girl, Michelle Chamuel, who went all the way to the finale. And last season had beardy folkster Cole Vosbury, nerdy theatrical rocker James Wolpert, flamboyant glitter girl Kat Robichaud, et al.
Where are the contestants like that in Season 6? I wouldn't say the thrill is totally gone this season — there's still plenty of great singing to be enjoyed — but with the exception of a couple of possible freak-flag-fliers (Kristen Merlin, Delvin Choice), the quirk and element of surprise seem to be gone, for sure.
Read on for a full recap of Team Usher's performances, as well as an assessment of where all four teams' contestants, interesting or not, stand.
T.J. Wilkins – T.J. can certainly sang, but since he's such a young guy, it's bizarre to me how old-fashioned he comes across. There's a difference between being retro in a cool way (examples: Ryan Shaw, Van Hunt, Pharrell's "Happy") and retro in a cabaret way, and T.J. unfortunately falls into the latter category. T.J. certainly didn't youth it up for his performance of Rufus & Chaka Khan's "Tell Me Something Good." His vocal was on point (which is commendable, considering how difficult Chaka songs are to sing), but this didn't sound like something fans would hurry to download on iTunes. I'm still trying to figure out T.J.'s place, not just on this show, but in the actual pop market. But maybe the coaches have that all figured out. Shakira liked how "soulful and committed" T.J. was. Adam Levine called T.J. a "breath of fresh air." Blake Shelton, who hadn't agreed with Usher's decision to keep T.J. over Biff Gore in the Battle Rounds, said, "I'm on board now." And Usher told T.J., "You reminded us of the careless, free nature of that time [in the '70s]." I guess Usher thought T.J. was retro in a cool way.
Melissa Jimenez – Melissa made the bold decision to strip down Beyoncé's "Halo" to really showcase what her voice can do. Was that the best decision? Shakira called it a "brave move" and "a great way to lay it out there," and Adam said that was "as courageous as it gets" — but it might have been her undoing. Melissa sounded impressive for the most part, but the song's tricky lower register tripped her up a bit, and there were moments when she sounded out of breath. She was good, but she was no Beyoncé, and the stark arrangement highlighted that. Blake couldn't judge because he was UNFAMILIAR WITH THE SONG (really???), but Adam noted, "There were moments that were really beautiful, and moments when there was trouble."
Stevie Jo – Stevie looks like a young Ozzy Osbourne and sings like Robin Thicke fronting the Bluesbreakers. Now that's interesting! I thought he did a great job with "The Thrill Is Gone." I was feeling it, and more importantly, Stevie was really feeling it, with lots of adlibs and riffing and a refreshing lack of tentativeness. It was loosey-goosey performance, and I appreciated his "crouching rabbit" stage action, as Blake amusingly described it. Stevie did get a little screechy at the end, but that screechiness seemed to be coming from his guts, from a place of passion. (Usher had advised him to think of a time when he got his heart broken. Little did Stevie know, he'd get his heart broken at the end of this episode.) Blake told him he'd "nailed it" and was "the real deal." Adam loved the emotion and didn't mind the technical problems. Shakira told him, "You had me in the first 20 seconds." Usher said, "I'm a fan of how courageous you are as a vocalist." I guess he wasn't that big of a fan, though.
Bria Kelly – Bria has been pimped hard this season. ("She's the reason Usher's team is a threat," Blake said this Tuesday, driving home that point.) But she had some trouble in the Battle Rounds (my main problem with her last battle was that distracting Xanadu headband she wore, actually), so now, the show has turned her story arc from "frontrunner" to "comeback kid." I seriously lost track of how many times the judges said she was "back" this Tuesday. Come on, now, was Bria ever really gone? Anyway, whether her performance of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" was a return to form or just another solid effort, it was very strong. There was a lot of wailing and rasping, a lot of passion and soul and heat, a lot of Melissa Etheridge/Beth Hart realness. She was really going for it — really battling, as it were. "I always lamented not having you on my team," said Adam. "I've stolen every singer you've sung against, and maybe that's because you make people step up," said Blake. "You were able to bring us back to that [classic Stones era], but also shine and make it your own," said Usher. Gee, Usher sure was in a nostalgic mood tonight.
Josh Kaufman – Josh was the revelation of the evening. A stolen contestant, originally from Team Adam, Josh gave the night's best performance and had the super-competitive, super-regretful Adam feeling like there was a "dagger in [his] heart." Josh's gospel-tinged rendition of Bruno Mars's "It Will Rain" was phenomenal: soulful, intense, and yet so smooth and effortless at the same time. He reminded me of Will Champlin's finest nights from last season. Who knew this mousy little guy was so…wait for it…interesting? He could be a real contender. "Thank you, Adam, for giving me an incredible talent," said Usher. "I'm so happy you're still on this show," Adam told Josh, in a very sportsmanlike manner. Blake admitted that Josh is one of his wife Miranda Lambert's Season 6 favorites and said, "I wish there were still Steals. You're one of the best singers on 'The Voice' this year."
So now, it was decision time. My picks were Josh, Bria, and Stevie; Usher's picks were Josh, Bria, and T.J. As I've mentioned before, multiple times, I think letting Stevie go was a mistake, but it's time to accept Usher's verdict and move on.
And it's time to rank all the teams moving on to the live shows in just six days. I'd say the teams are tied — really, for the first time in all six seasons, I cannot confidently claim that there's ONE strongest team. But each team definitely has a strongest individual player. So below, I've ranked the singers within each team, from best to not-best (I won't say "worst"). Will any of these contestants give interesting, cool performances next Monday? I sure hope so. Come back then and find out.