photo: NBC"Tonight, there are no bells and whistles. It is stripped down, so you can focus on what matters--the voice," host Carson Daly announced at the start of Monday's first live competitive "Voice" show of Season 3, in what kinda/sorta seemed like a dig at rival show "The X Factor's" wild kitchen-sink approach. Of course, "The Voice's" directors, particularly those directing Team Cee Lo's performances, haven't always shied away from over-the-top theatrics either. But suffice to say, this evening's scaling-back would ensure that no Season 3 contestants would get Mussolini/The Wall-style dictator sets, creepy kabuki-masked backup dancers, or Egyptian carriages, like some singers got last season.
But that might all change when Cee Lo Green's contestants perform later this week, on Wednesday. Considering that Cee Lo attended Monday's "Voice" taping in a ruffle-shirted, Afro-topped getup that made him look like the illegitimate lovechild of Pam Grier and Prince, anything's possible when the Playoffs return for episode two.
Anyway, for the first episode of "Live Playoffs" (side note: I am so not into this "Playoffs" lingo; keep sports talk out of my singing shows!), it was all about the singers on Team Adam and Team Blake--and the coaches as well as the contestants were feeling the pressure, since hypercompetitive Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, the winning coaches of the past two "Voice" seasons, were both keen to replicate their victories in Season 3. So both teams' contestants joined forces for a high-energy group performance of Boston's "Peace Of Mind" (why has there never been a Boston Night on any of these talent shows?), it was game on.
Let the Playoffs begin!
Joeslyn Rivera - This 17-year-old got the "death spot," singing first, but she seemed totally confident opening the two-hour show. Her cover of Demi Lovato's "Give Your Heart A Break" started strong, but she did struggle midway through, and she hit some wonky notes towards the end. However, her vivacious performance could not be faulted. "Damn it! I knew I wanted you on my team," said the competitive Blake. Cee Lo said Joeslyn "rose to the challenge" of the difficult song. (Demi is underrated, y'all.) I am not sure how long Joeslyn can last on this show, but it was to her advantage that she wasn't competing on the same night as Team Xtina's crew of young girl-pop thangs, so she may survive this initial live round. But she was only the first to sing, and she had some very tough competition ahead of her...
Melanie Martinez - Melanie clearly does not have the strongest voice in a season filled with big belters, but I still find her to be one of the most fascinating contestants of the bunch. How could I not be fascinated by a coquettish, artsy, two-tone-haired indie girl who's only 17 but chooses to cover Ray Charles's "Hit The Road Jack"? (The song choice was her idea, not Adam's.) She started off shaky and nervous, but her confidence grew as the song went on, and by the end, that sweet, bow-topped Melanie charm was in full effect. "You're just not that interested in fitting in, you just want to be Melanie, and I love that," said Blake. Christina Aguilera hemmed and hawed, making diplomatic statements like "I appreciate your vision as an artist," and I had a feeling that she wanted to harshly critique Melanie...but for some reason, she refrained. Melanie's thing is just so not Christina's thing. Adam, of course, being Melanie's own coach, was the kindest, saying, "I didn't find myself comparing it to [Ray Charles's] version, because it was so wild and different. As far as artistry and making it your own...this was an amazing performance." I am worried that not everyone is going to "get" Melanie, or that she will not be able to survive in a competition teeming with so many traditional powerhouse singers who may eventually overwhelm her. But I hope she does survive, at least for a while, because I am dying to see what she performs next. I also want to see just how many color-coordinated Hello Kitty hairbows she owns.
Bryan Keith - Team Adam's only male contestant went with a rather predictable and dated ballad, the Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris," but there was no denying that it was a good vehicle for his gruff voice. He practically sang it as well as Johnny Rzeznik (although he didn't really put much of his own spin on the song), and Blake even said he sounded a bit like Neil Diamond in his lower register--and sounding like Neil is never a bad thing. And Bryan worked the stage like a pro, too; the studio audience went nuts for him. "You really owned it," said Christina. Adam, sitting smugly in his big red chair, understandably looked very pleased.
Loren Allred - Loren covered Lisa Stansfield's "All Around The World," an awesomely unexpected choice from the '80s/'90s cusp that allowed her sassy inner soulfulness to shine through. Loren came into the Playoffs at a major disadvantage, having received much less screentime than pretty much everyone else on the show, but she made the most of her time on Monday night, looking gorgeous and sounding smoooooooth. Cee Lo called her "jazzy and sexy." Adam loved the song choice and thought Loren did an "incredible job." Loren is definitely the underdog of this competition, but she received good placement this week, appearing towards the end of the show, and she seems to be peaking at the right time. So she just might be the Haley Reinhart of "The Voice" Season 3 and surprise us all.
Amanda Brown - Speaking of surprises, this former Adele backup singer has definitely been full of 'em this season, from her unusual influences (Radiohead, Grace Potter), to her unlikely journey from Team Cee Lo fodder to stolen-away Team Adam frontrunner. And it was certainly surprising this week when she took on Aerosmith's mighty "Dream On," a power ballad originally sung by former "Idol" judge Steven Tyler that has always been that man's signature song. But Amanda ROCKED this. Suffice to say this was a whole lot better than Danny Gokey's "Idol" version. She looked like a total rock star, she hit ALL of the high notes (that scream at the end! whoa!), and by the glass-shattering conclusion of this tour de force, Christina was fanning herself with a giant pink feather and howling, "Get it gurl!" Cee Lo, who actually gave Amanda up in the Battle Rounds, looked really foolish right about now--and this had nothing with his New Power Generation outfit, either. But Adam was looking pretty smart. Probably the smartest thing Adam ever did on this series was stealing Amanda for his team.
Terry McDermott - Blake had this shaggy-haired Scottish rocker sing "Don't Stop Believin'," one of the most all-American anthems ever. I didn't mind. I can never get enough of this song. "American Idol," Rock Of Ages, "The Sopranos," Alvin & The Chipmunks, "Glee"....I don't care; as long as Steve Perry continues to not sing "Don't Stop Believin'," I'll take whatever I can get elsewhere. Blake picked this powerhouse classic for Terry because he thinks Terry is the kind of guy who can bring back classic rock, and you know, Blake may be onto something here. Terry wowed earlier this season with his covers of the Who's "Baba O'Reilly" and Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed," and he wowed with this one, too; he was clearly born to play arenas, not NBC soundstages. Christina praised Terry's "precise clearness" and "easy-on-the-ears" vocal tone; Cee Lo called him "genuine rock 'n' roll"; and Blake declared, "When God was passing out the ability to rock, he gave Terry just a little bit more." I really wonder why Terry's old band, Driveblind, never took off. The man's a "stud," to quote Blake again.
Liz Davis - This country lady--the only remaining country singer this season--got all patriotic for election week with her cover of Martina McBride's "Independence Day," and if "The Voice's" voter base is anything like "American Idol's," then this is a performance that viewers will adore. But that wasn't the only reason why Blake was smart to pick this for her. Liz's sassy outlaw vibe during her past performances was actually making her seem a little unlikable, and kind of like a one-trick cowgirl. So it was wise to showcase this other side of Liz: the traditional, Faith Hill-gowned balladeer. "Perfect time for that song," noted Christina. Cee Lo gushed, "It made me proud to be an American." Said Blake, "Thank you so much for proving me right, that you were the right country artist to bring into the live rounds." Now we just have to see how many country fans are actually watching, and voting for, "The Voice."
Cassadee Pope - I still hold a grudge against Cassadee--or maybe just against Blake--because she snagged the last spot on Blake's team instead of one of my favorite contestants, Suzanna Choffel. But I tried to judge her Playoffs performance of Avril Lavigne's "My Happy Ending" on its own merits. It was a good song choice for her, very much in her pop-punk-lite wheelhouse, and her rockish energy and flat-ironed hair was giving me a real Alanis vibe. Was I blown away? Not entirely, but I could see this girl selling records in the future, especially if she got the kind of great material that pro songsmiths line up to write for, say, Kelly Clarkson. She's cute, commercial, and she can capably sing. Christina said Cassadee missed a few notes at the beginning, but was "solid" overall. Cee Lo thought it was a "wonderful performance." Adam claimed Cassadee still seemed to be suffering from some sort of identity crisis; "Who is the real Cassadee Pope?" he asked rhetorically. Retorted Blake, "Adam will have plenty of time to figure it out, because [Cassadee is] gonna be here a while." We'll see. But I still wish it'd been Suzanna singing this week.
Michaela Paige - When it comes to pop-rock girls, I'll take Michaela over Cassadee any day. At age 16, she's the youngest contestant left in Season 3, but a performance like the one she did this week, of Neon Trees' "Everybody Talks," makes her a real threat to her elders in the competition. The girl is just "freak of nature" and "very special," as Blake put it. She worked the crowd, she rocked a Cyndi Lauper crinoline and sky-high Jedwardian coif, and she belted her little lungs out. She was giving me some real Allison Iraheta realness here. Adam said it was Michaela's personal best, and Cee Lo even said it was the best performance of the entire night. Blake was thrilled, saying, "You're making me look so smart! I was the only one who turned around [for Michaela in the Blind Auditions]. You nailed it!"
Julio Cesar Castillo - Julio, a mariachi band crooner who first auditioned with the traditional Spanish-language pop tune "La Bamba," has been attempting to modernize himself over the past couple weeks--and this week, that meant wearing a Bieber combover and a Killers skinny tie. However, for his Playoffs song, he went very traditional, by performing "El Rey," a mariachi classic written in 1926. Did the dichotomy work? I am not sure. On the one hand, I admired him for sticking to his roots (after somewhat awkwardly covering Bieber last week, ugh) and embracing his Latin heritage. This performance was also very different from the stuff we usually see on singing shows, and that really helped him stand out on Monday. And he sang the song VERY well and seemed more comfortable onstage than ever before. But I just don't know if "El Rey"--likely unknown to many viewers--will get people to pick up their phones. However, Julio did get a standing ovation, and Carson did call him a "fan favorite," so we'll see. Julio is certainly a favorite of Blake's, so if he doesn't make it through this week based on the votes, I have a feeling that Blake may save him.
So on Thursday's results show, the top two vote-getters from each team will automatically advance to the top 12, then each coach will choose a third contestant to go through. I am tentatively predicting that Team Adam's top two will be Bryan Keith and Amanda Brown, with Adam saving Melanie--but Joeslyn and Loren certainly can't be counted out. For Team Blake, it's an even tougher call. Terry and Liz, as the only real representatives of their respective genres and seasoned professionals to boot, have great chances of getting votes, but Michaela and Julio gave memorable, highly praised performances, and Cassadee has a diehard fanbase from her days fronting the major-label emo band Hey Monday. So who knows?
All I know is, if Terry, Michaela, Amanda, and Melanie aren't somewhere in that top 12 mix, I am going to be one sad, sad indie/rocker chick on Thursday night.
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