Rising Star, with its live audience interaction, remains a uniquely fresh concept (outside of dystopian YA literature). The technology works, the judges are a classic reality show blend of salty and sweet, and the host is unlike any other on TV.
I realized halfway through my Sunday evening that I was actually excited to see what would happen on the sophomore episode of Rising Star. Because that’s the thrill of live TV — it’s not just that something could go wrong, or that Kesha could test the censors, as Josh Groban teased last week … it’s the opportunity to self-correct while the meter is still running, to be a different show every week.
Rising Star was a better show in its second week. Its season premiere was kind of like any pilot for a new show: With all the setting up and exposition, you can hardly see the trees for the giant interactive Wall that could potentially have your face on it. The second episode was a tighter two hours, with less chitchat, more performances and more engaging talent. Like last week, the technology still stood out as impressive, but on a show that’s supposed to revolutionize competitive reality television, Rising Star‘s most surprising revelation is turning out to be its host.
Groban is a wonderfully confusing little ball of impromptu humor, dorky socks, and funny-guy wit, isn’t he? His transitions aren’t smooth … they’re smart. Not to mention, he is at a Jeff Probst-level of dedication to this show — this guy is in on Rising Star, which continues to suggest to the audience that there is something there to be in on, even if it’s just Groban’s socks (or glasses, which, let’s be clear, are definitely real). This is a live show with very real live stakes, so in addition to mentoring every single contestant and taking on normal hosting responsibilities, Groban’s response, when someone doesn’t make it through, has to be immediate,sympathetic, and still get us from Point A to Point Ludacris.
And apparently, if one of those stakes actually ends up being that your family’s house burns down while you’re on the show, Groban will also personally step in and pledge his fealty to getting you back on your feet … but a little more on that later. Let’s get to the second most interesting part of Rising Star: the music.
Shameia Crawford, “We Are Young”
Shameia is a backup singer who has the stunning appearance of a lead singer and the song choice of someone who didn’t quite understand the Wall concept. While fun.’s “We Are Young” is a favorite anthem of youths everywhere, it takes forever to build any momentum and Crawford’s belting vocals are much more impressive than her lower register. Brad Paisley, who generally offers the most constructive critiques, said that her start was weak, and even though it built to something that all three judges voted for, you gave to grab the at-home audience’s attention immediately.
Status: Shameia garnered an edge-of-your-seat 69 percent of the votes on the East Coast, and after much prompting from the judges and a little Twitter campaigning, was saved by the West Coast vote.
April Lockhart, “Say You’ll Be There”
April has the bangs and vocals of a cool YouTube star, and she kind of is. When she sits down to rehearsal with Groban and says, “Can I have my thing?” we discover that due to amniotic band syndrome, April has been missing her left hand since birth, and her “thing” is “birdie,” a tool with a beak-like pick that attaches to her left arm so she can strum her guitar. It is … impressive. Even more impressive is her surprising Spice Girls song choice, and even better than that is April’s effortless stage presence at only 18. Her vocals weren’t perfect, but Luda says that his faith that she’ll work hard to get better like she obviously has her whole life is what made him swipe yes.
Status: Advances with all three judges’ votes, 85 percent overall, and the tears of her precious dad who cautiously bought her her first guitar and is now bawling in the audience.
Austin French, “Georgia on My Mind”
Austin has sparkly eyes, a nice worship leader voice, and a fiance he met at church. He puts enough soul into “Georgia on My Mind” to get all three judges’ votes, but given that Paisley says that he voted for him because he liked watching him overcome his nerves, French might not ultimately be our Rising-est Star.
Status: Advances with all three judges, and 87 percent overall.
A Groban Notable: “Up next, an all-girl threesome … they made me say that.”
Cassie, Lauren and Jessica make up this threesome, and if you think those names imply they will be good rappers, you are wrong, and also, what are you thinking? Ariana Grande is quite literally a high standard to match, and Trinitii tries a little too hard to hit all the right notes. Paisley says the group needed to be better and Kesha, who voted yes, says to nix the rapping.
Status: Rejected with Kesha’s vote, and 30 percent overall
A Groban Notable: “If I think it seems awkward, it really must be awkward” — true and sound advice during the rehearsal package.
Alice J. Lee, “You and I”
Somewhere around Alice Lee, I begin to notice that just about everyone who auditions on Rising Star is very young and unreasonably attractive … I guess that’s one way to subvert The Voice concept of the blind audition. Rising Star wants a star! And Alice already kind of is one, as a lead castmember in the off-Broadway production of Heathers: The Musical, a role she won on an open casting call when she was a college freshman. While it takes a long time to get to that all important “YOU AND IIIIII” in her performance, Alice’s vocals are as technically proficient as we’ve heard from anyone. The judges agree that her Broadway tendencies weren’t a perfect match for the bluesy song, but there’s a lot of potential in her.
Status: Advances with Ludacris and Kesha’s votes, 73 percent overall, and precious head-bopping from her proud mom, who kept her purse right next to her while she cheered on her daughter.
Rye Davis, “When You Say Nothing at All”
Davis is a tall drink of water, a former minor league baseball player, and a current cattle farmer, who doesn’t bring much to “When You Say Nothing at All.” Important question: Is there anyone helping these contestants pick songs that cater to the limited time frame and voting structure of this show??? [Editor’s note: yes.]
Status: Rejected with none of the judges’ votes, and 45 percent overall.
Sonnet Simmons, “Wicked Game”
Sonnet tells Groban she was born in Greece but grew up in L.A. and Josh is all “So you’re Greek, then?” and Sonnet’s all “Naw, I was born into A CULT that my mom joined when she was 18 and escaped when I was five.” Backpacking through Europe: not for everyone. Simmons’ ability to soar on big notes as well as more vulnerable moments outshines her crazy backstory, but it certainly doesn’t hurt in adding to the eeriness of that song. Luda appreciates her bold song choice, Paisley was pleasantly puzzled, and Kesha very sensitively says she’s obsessed with cults and wants to start one, to which Sonnet replies, “You’d probably have a nice cult,” with a pretty pointed look. Keep your eye on this one — she’s interesting. Also keep your eye out for Kesha’s cat cult, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Status: Advances with all three judges’ votes, and 81 percent overall.
A Groban Notable: “Oh … that is a complicated story.”
Deedra Ervin, “Anything Could Happen”
Oh no. This is not fair. They can’t tell us that Deedra’s family’s house just burned down, show a lingering image of a charred guitar, have the first 10 seconds of her performance sound super promising and then rapidly decline into nervous energy. Deedra gets very emotional when the Wall rises at the end of the song, and it seems to be more about seeing the judges and audience on their feet, thanking her for her service in the Army, than about not getting 70 percent of the vote. There’s something very nice about how Luda, Kesha and Paisley often stand up out of excitement and stay standing to address the contestants eye to eye.
Status: Rejected with no judges’ votes, and 26 percent overall.
A Groban Notable: Josh just said he and Rising Star will do everything they can to make sure Deedra and her family have the help they need during this hard time. I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Will Roth, “Sweater Weather”
Roth has a lot of jobs — vet tech by day, private investigator by night — a lot of beard, and a lot of growl to his voice. It’s, well, a lot to take in, and it’s difficult to tell what’s good singing vs. bold performing, but there will be time to see, because the judges vote yes for Roth’s confidence (and beard).
Status: Advances with all three judges’ votes, and 83 percent overall.
A Kesha Notable: Kesha taking offense that Groban doesn’t know about her love for beards is a wonderful little nugget of insight into what I can only imagine is a very dynamic relationship.
Egypt Dixon, “Fancy”
I understand letting an 18-year-old make her own artistic decisions, but shouldn’t someone have wielded a firmer hand here? A rapper on this show is interesting; a singer who doesn’t actually seem particularly interested in a rapping career is a little painful. The judges all agree they wish they could hear something else, because Egypt seems to have a good voice.
Status: Rejected with Kesha’s vote, and 44 percent overall.
Adam Jaymes, “I Won’t Give Up”
Adam (or Cute Adam, as you’re probably referring to him in your head) delivers a performance with a lot of passion, a little precision, and heaps of stage presence. “I Won’t Give Up” is a risky song choice, entirely reliant on a key change three quarters of the way into the song, but it pays off as much because Adam shows potential and vulnerability as because all the judges think he’s serving Justin Timberlake realness.
Status: Advances with all three judges’ votes, and 87 percent overall.
Megan Tibbits, “All of Me”
Megan plays the harp — that is neat. She doesn’t sing as well as the other contestants while she plays the harp — that is less neat. She’s beautiful, with a weird energy, and nowhere is that more evident than when she’s beautifully playing the harp and weirdly breathing her way through “All of Me.” I get what the producers were going for, but are they really trying to give a record contract to a harp player?
Status: Megan earns Kesha and Paisley’s votes, is rejected with 68 percent of the East Coast vote, and is then SAVED by the West Coast!
More interesting than Rising Star‘s more successful second run — showcasing talent, both in the contestants and on the judging panel tonight — is that the energy this week was that of an entirely different show than last week. I’ll definitely be tuning in to see what kind of network notes Luda, Kesha and Paisley have taken to heart. Oh, and Groban’s upped “sock game,” I’ll definitely be tuning in for that.
Although, how you top Scrabble socks, a literal sock game, I have no idea.
A version of this article originally appeared on Billboard.com.