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Weeks away from the American Idol finale, there are two heavyweight contenders who seem destined to face off for the crown: Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez, with both carrying off a set of jaw-dropping performances on Wednesday that received standing ovations from the judges’ panel.
Meanwhile, Hollie Cavanagh fell flat on a Bonnie Raitt classic and Phillip Phillips coasted by on his “I’m a dreamy, sensitive singer-songwriter” credentials.
For the first half of the show, the top four finalists performed songs from California-bred artists, and in the second, songs they wish they’d written.
Leave it to Ledet, 19, to select an adult-contemporary inspirational hymn like Josh Groban‘s “You Raise Me Raise Up” — a fitting choice for the church-reared Lousiana soul singer, who isn’t afraid to get sentimental (but never sappy). It was a capable performance to follow Ledet’s through-the-roof Bee Gees show-stopper last week, drawing the expected kudos from Randy Jackson and company.
“You’re an amazing artist with a ginormous career ahead of you,” quoth Jackson, sounding — shock — a bit like a broken record.
But Ledet took things to another level entirely with James Brown‘s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” effortlessly pulling off a near-religious experience of a performance. The judges leaped to their feet for Ledet’s 2,000th standing ovation of the season, and Jennifer Lopez bowed his direction, saying she “saw the lord.”
VIDEO: ‘Idol Hangover’ Discusses Joshua Ledet, Jessica Sanchez
Jackson praised the sweaty, passion-filled cover as one of the best of any singing show in history, while Steven Tyler bellowed: “I can go home right now! I’ve never heard anything like that in my life.”
Jessica Sanchez, The Other One To Beat, showcased her signature growl on Etta James‘ “Steal Away,” successfully harnessing her angsty inner blues singer — and managing to transform Idol‘s neon stage into an intimate music club. Indeed, she could growl the alphabet.
“That showed the other side of your voice. You’re shaking off the old you and changing. That’s a good thing,” said Tyler, appearing more intense and alert than usual, perhaps taking cues from super-invested mentors Adam Levine and Blake Shelton on The Voice.
Backstage, the 16-year-old Sanchez confessed: “Secretly, I’m 65 years old and I’ve been singing all my life.”
For her next go-round, Sanchez pulled off a Jennifer Hudson-quality rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls, oozing raw emotion and ending the song in tears. All three judges rose in Sanchez’s honor as Lopez raved, “There’s nothing to say.”
VIDEO: ‘American Idol’: Jennifer Lopez Wishes She Could Mentor More
As for Phillips, he kicked things off with Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” looking grungier than ever in black jeans, a gray shirt and blue button-down. The low-key rocker-heartthrob didn’t exactly bring the house down (seriously, this is the perfect song for the bringing down of the house), but the judges dug it anyway. Lopez viewed a “Joe Cocker quality” and Jackson said he began “a little rough” but pulled through in the final notes.
Philips next sang Damien Rice‘s “Volcano,” a song about a guy letting a girl down easy. He used minimal lighting and some excellent backup singers for the moody, guitar-driven number, prompting three thumbs up from the judges.
“You just sang like you really dug the way you sung,” observed Tyler, while Lopez dubbed it “one of the most beautiful, poignant moments” in the show’s history.
Well, we wouldn’t go that far. Sure, the effect was personal and authentic and all that, with Phillips projecting his usual frontman charisma, and yet … our initial reaction was, “This is the song he wished he had written? This?!” What a plodding, blah, overrated snoozer.
VIDEO: ‘Idol Hangover’: Power Couple Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo on Finding Love After ‘American Idol’
Then there was Hollie Cavanagh, who capitalized on her late-game streak of Idol success with Journey‘s “Faithfully,” making Lopez all weepy. (Fun fact: J-Lo and The Voice‘s Cee-Lo have both cried following reality-TV renditions of “Faithfully” this year. Steve Perry is having a moment.)
“It got me a little bit emotional seeing how far you’ve come,” said the judge, who got on Cavanagh’s case two weeks ago for not letting loose and feeling the music. “I saw how laid back you were, I saw a confidence about you. … You were ready to share your gift with everybody. It was really very beautiful.”
Cavanagh, 18, told Ryan Seacrest that she had some off-camera coaching to channel the power ballad’s meaning. The result: haunting and memorable, with traces of Carrie Underwood‘s stage presence; a vast improvement for Cavanagh, who’s previously appeared nervous and timid on stage.
Everything went downhill for the aspiring Celine Dion, however, on Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” another staple karaoke song. Although mentor Jimmy Iovine cautioned her not to over-sing, she did exactly that without a hint of Raitt’s warm, nuanced delivery. Overall, the judges felt her effort lacked conviction and fell short of what could have been an Idol-defining wow moment.
PHOTOS: ‘American Idol’ Season 11: Top 13 Finalists
Also! There were duets: Ledet and Phillips paired up for Maroon 5‘s “This Love,” and the judges practically lost their bleep (in a good way); Sanchez and Cavanagh, swinging while singing on stage, combined their mega-powerful voices for the Bangles‘ “Eternal Flame,” and Jackson thought it was “weird.” (Whatever, Randy Jackson. That song takes us back to all-school skates at the roller rink, so now we feel wistful and nostalgic and we can’t think of anything mean to say.)
The remaining quartet also teamed up on Foreigner‘s “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” which, coincidentally, also appears in the upcoming movie musical Rock of Ages, which, coincidentally, also stars Seacrest’s girlfriend, Julianne Hough.
Hough sat in the audience with the film’s director, Adam Shankman, while Idol showed a trailer of Rock of Ages, slated for release June 15. At one point, Seacrest pretended like he was going to propose to Hough, who didn’t seem to be in on the joke and looked visibly worried at what he might say. (It’s so Ryan to pop the question on camera, isn’t it? Anyway, he led us on.)
Questions, Idol-Worshippers: who’s going home on Thursday? Were the judges too harsh on Hollie? Should Seacrest have dropped the act and actually proposed? Seriously, why would he prank Julianne like that?
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