THE PAST FEW MONTHS were the windup, this is the pitch.

Now, we’ve got the big set, the big lights, the Bobby Bigvoice announcer bellowing the names of Randy, Ellen, Kara, Simon and Seacrest. And in the center of it all, the top 12.

And to go with it, a series of performances that just might indicate that the competition itself has turned an exciting corner. Let’s get right to it.

The players: Casey James, Tim Urban, Mike Lynche, Aaron Kelly, Andrew Garcia, Lee Dewyze, Crystal Bowersox, Lacey Brown, Katie Stevens, Paige Miles, Didi Benami and Siobhan Magnus.

After a setup video puts an appropriate amount of pucker to the aging keisters of The Rolling Stones, whose songs the Idolites are singing, it’s off to the races almost immediately.

Twelve contestants, two hours. Rock on.

The intro videos this evening are aimed at introducing us to the contestants’ family lives, and in Big Mike’s, we learn that his thoughts turned to music as his mom suffered from a fatal illness. We also meet his wife and very cute baby — and experience the kind of disconnect that happens when a person that big holds a person that small.

He sings “Miss You” with an almost theatrical flair and a considerably less spare arrangement than the original. His tweaks to the song’s pacing are a much better fit with his style than the original would have been, and his voice is as powerful a force as ever. It’s not as good as last week’s performance, but Big Mike has kicked his game to a whole new level. He’s very much a contender.

“I wasn’t so crazy when the arrangement started, but it reminded me of how great a performer you’ve become,” Randy says. “Dawg, you slayed it.”

“At some point I’m going to be disappointed, but not yet,” Ellen says. “That’s a way to start the night. Good, good, good.”

“First night, big stage. It’s hard — you’ve got to fill up that stage,” Kara says, before going on a predictable, tiresome rant about how very good the Stones, a band that’s been famous for nearly 50 years, are.

“I really liked it,” she adds, finally returning to a critique of Big Mike.

“I thought the performance at times, particularly your dancing, was kind of corny,” Simon says. “You sang it well, but I think when you watch it back, it was verging at times [on being] a tiny bit desperate.”

Have you been missing the Seacrest/Simon squabbling that used to be common in previous years? Tonight, it returns with a vengeance.

“What part of the dancing or other components looked desperate to you?” Seacrest asks Simon.

“Do you want me to talk to you,” Simon responds snippily, “or to Mike?”

Here’s the surprise move: Seacrest — who normally strikes me as a lover not a fighter — walks menacingly up to the judges’ table, gets right in Simon’s face and growls, “I’m actually trying to help him out a little bit, buddy, because I want him to stay in the competition. You all right with that?”

Woah. It’s like the fights I used to see in the old neighborhood when Jimmy the Fish used to rumble with Joey Knuckles. Of course, by “I” I mean someone else and by “old neighborhood,” I mean 1920s Brooklyn. But you get my drift.

What the hell would have provoked that? Is Simon being more of a prick than usual backstage? Was it the safety of knowing that Big Mike — who could surely bend Simon into a biscuit and dunk him in a well-sugared cup of English Breakfast — had his back?

I’m not sure. But the two of them seem to get back to business as usual afterward.

“Ryan, we can sort this out in my trailer afterwards if that’s what you want to do,” Simon says obliquely.

Seacrest out? Not yet.

After that ridiculous display of machismo, it’s on to the feminine wiles of Ms. Didi. We learn that she’s the middle child of a family from Knoxville, Tenn.. And that she calls her mom “Mommy Benami.” Which is a little bit awesome.

She sings “Play With Fire,” and it might just be my favorite performance of hers yet. The arrangement’s similar to the Stones’ version, but Didi brings an intensity and a sultriness to the lyrics that only adds to the original’s foreboding nature.

There are a few moments when she seems less polished than others — she rushes through the beginning of a pair of verses, for example. But overall, she does a mighty good job.

“I think for the first time for me in weeks, Didi you were on fire,” Randy says.

“You have an amazing voice,” Ellen says. “I thought you sounded great, and you made the word ‘fire’ two syllables, which I thought was gr-eat.”

“I think sometimes when you push on your vocals you lose your way a bit,” Kara says. “But what I liked tonight that I saw was an intensity that you attacked the song with. … There’s something very compelling about the sweetness of your voice with the eeriness of the song, and you did it last week.”

“What I like about you is that you are beginning to show us the kind of artist you want to be,” Simon says. “Very cool choice of song. … But I’ve been a fan of yours for the last two to three weeks. Again, it’s a very solid, but not brilliant, performance.”

Ah, I’d forgotten that Casey is from Cool, Texas. And his mom’s pretty cool herself.

He sings “It’s All Over Now” with a bluesy, country-ish twist. It’s very listenable, although there’s something about the way he smiles throughout the performance that makes it seem like he’s hamming it up for the cameras, which is weird.

I like Casey’s voice, and I think that he’s a pretty well put together performer. And I certainly think he should keep going in the competition. But the way he approaches this song doesn’t completely jibe for me. It’s the least connected performance I’ve seen so far this episode.

“You’re back to the Casey I love,” Randy says. “I loved it.”

“For most women, their hearts are going to start racing just looking at you,” Ellen says. “But for people like me — blondes…. I thought it was fantastic.”

“I think that I said … that you were trying to be a rock star,” Kara says. “Well, tonight, you were a rock star.”

“You look great, you sang it well, you played the guitar well,” Simon says. “For me, that was like an audition performance, not using this stage and the platform you have to do what I’ve seen with other artists over the years, which is to do something incredible. And I think that’s what you’ve got to start doing now — you’ve got to push yourself.”

“I didn’t realize you were a natural blonde,” Seacrest says to Ellen. Who doesn’t look happy at all that he said that. Thud.

During Lacey’s intro interview, we see a very young Lacey picking her nose. Ew.

She sings “Ruby Tuesday.” At first I really hate it. There’s something about her voice that, when singing those particular lyrics at that particular tone, really starts to grate on my nerves. But when the song builds to its hook, though, I do a complete 180: Her pacing seems perfect, the quirky tone to her voice adds rather than detracts; it’s finally listenable.

Could it be the sitting on the side of the stage that’s the difference between a good Lacey performance and a bad one?

“I wasn’t jumping up and down about it vocally because it wasn’t one of those wow moments,” Randy says. “It was definitely the most interesting one of the night so far.”

“I thought it was weird that in the slowest part of the song you were standing and moving and then when it started kind of building, you sat down,” Ellen says. “You like to sit on the edge of things; don’t go to the Grand Canyon. … It was a little, a tiny, tiny bit sleepy for me.”

“It was 50/50 for me,” Kara says. “There definitely were some issues where you didn’t hit the notes right.”

“You perform like an actress,” Simon says. “It’s just very, very thought through. … Maybe you’ve just got to stop overthinking this. … You’re in danger of doing the same thing every week.”

From his intro interview, we learn that Andrew’s dad thought Andrew “was going to be a custodian or something” because he liked collecting keys. Or he could have been a locksmith, I guess. Or a really sly thief.

He sings “Gimme Shelter.” But before that, he apparently hopped into a hot tub time machine that brought him alllllll the way back to 1986, when lots of people made lots of money singing songs exactly the way Andrew does.

The original is a bombastic song, sure. And nobody would ever accuse Mick Jagger of being mellifluous. But Andrew’s vocals are so ragged during this song that he sounds more like the lead singer of a washed-up metal band than an “American Idol” contestant. It’s a pretty miserable showing.

“I love the song, I love the Stones, I love you,” Randy says. “It was just pitchy everywhere.”

“What do I know, I think that was your best performance yet,” Ellen says. “I loved it.”

“There were definitely elements when we started to hear that tone that we’ve been missing from that voice,” Kara says. “It’s the connection that bothered me the most out of that performance. … I just wanted more intensity.”

“I’m somewhere in the middle here,” Simon says. “My gut feeling is that you were better in rehearsals than you were on the night. … I genuinely hope that you survive another week.”

Yikes. Seacrest gives poor Katie a pop quiz during a pre-performance interview. Luckily, she’s able to spit out that the lead singer of the Stones is Mick Jagger.

She sings “Wild Horses,” a tune famously remade last year by Susan Boyle. Not exactly what the judges had in mind, I’m sure, when they told Katie to be more current.

But it is without a doubt her best performance yet. It’s not as raw as Jagger’s and not as polished as Boyle’s, but Katie’s rendition is sweet, powerful and well constructed. It gives as clear a showcase of her formidable singing talent as we’ve seen yet. Perhaps this is the artist she wants to be. If so, she might be on to something.

“It’s a great song, if you sing it well, it’s all good all the time,” Randy says. “I thought it was a very strong performance.”

“It started a little pitchy, and then once you got into it, you sounded amazing,” Ellen says. “What a great song. Good choice.”

“It’s never technically perfect with you,” Kara says. “You made some nice variations on the melody. … It was better than last week.”

“This is the only week where you have actually chosen a very strong song,” Simon says. “I didn’t like the second half of the arrangement, because I think you lost the emotion. This is, as I’ve said, the first time where you connected with the song. … Well done.”

I’m going to say it: Tim Urban is a killer — a song killer. He attacks mercilessly and he leaves no survivors.

This week, he sings “Under My Thumb,” by which I mean he utters the lyrics that belong to “Under My Thumb.” However, they’re plunked onto a bastardized variation of Jason Mraz‘s “I’m Yours.”

It’s just awful. “Under My Thumb” should sound like a dirty roll in the hay, not a song you’d hear at the church social, as teenagers in pleated polyester pants dance under the watchful eyes of parents who ensure that they’re standing at least a ruler’s length apart. To see such a classically controversial tune neutered this way right before our eyes is disturbing to say the least.

And if he’s going to bludgeon it with some boring Bowdlerizing stick, he could at least sing it well. Ugh.

“I didn’t get that, dude,” Randy says. “It didn’t serve you or the song well.”

“I felt like I was at a resort and drinking a pina colada and listening to somebody sing,” Ellen says.

“I totally get what the guys are saying,” Kara says. “The other side is I’ve got to applaud you for doing something so incredibly different with the song.”

He could have sung it in Pig Latin, too. Would you applaud that, Kara?

Actually, I would. But anyway.

“I have to applaud you for doing something different,” Simon says. “Having said that, it didn’t work. Actually, a lot of people who are Rolling Stones fans would be turning their television sets off at that point. … I think it was a crazy decision.”

Siobhan a tall, weird girl from what appears to be a big, weird family. And I mean that in the nicest way possible. Also, the fact that her dad’s a dead ringer for AC/DC‘s Brian Johnson makes a very strange kind of sense, doesn’t it?

She sings “Paint it Black.” And wow.


Just wow.

It’s an absolutely masterful performance. I had no idea anyone this season was capable of such a thing. It was like an Adam Lambert set from the days of yore.

The beginning, with its soft sounds and altered hook, are like opening a twisted music box, with Siobhan dressed perfectly as the dark ballerina in its center. But then, when the song lithely transitions into hard-charging rock, Siobhan blasts her voice into the stratosphere.

It’s my favorite performance of the year, hands down. It’s black magic from start to finish.

“Bringing the drama to ‘American Idol’ season nine,” Randy says. “That was hot!”

“I love the way you look tonight, I love the way you sound, I love that song,” Ellen says.

“I’m having flashbacks of Adam Lambert,” Kara says. “The best interpretation tonight.”

“I’m gonna totally agree,” Simon says. “It was the standout performance of the night. … It’s almost like you’re gonna have to now scream at the end of every song.”

Oh, yaaaaah. Gotta love that Midwest accent. Oh, let’s go for dinner at the Dewyzes!

Lee sings “Beast of Burden,” a song that’s kind of weird to hear coming from him right after we meet his sweet little Midwestern mom.

It’s a bit of a letdown after Siobhan’s magnum opus, since it’s a straight-ahead interpretation, but It’s a good performance in its own right. I don’t think Lee’s voice has sounded better on stage yet. A few of the verses are garbled a bit, but he definitely captures the longing in the song. It’s a very radio-friendly tune.

“You really came home with this for me,” Randy says. “I thought it was dope.”

“I thought it was great, and I thought you sounded great,” Ellen says. “I was expecting a tiny bit more from you. … It almost didn’t come together, like a hospital gown.”

“You are growing faster than anybody on this stage,” Kara says. “That’s what I want to celebrate with this performance tonight.”

“What’s always held you back, I think, Lee is your personality. Because you don’t shine at the moment,” Simon says. “The frustrating thing is that you have got an incredibly good voice. … What I want to see, and I pray that you’re back next week, is to come on this stage, choose the song and have what I call a ‘moment.’ Stamp your mark on the competition and stop thinking that people are better than you.”

Paige sings “Honky Tonk Women,” and it’s her best performance to date, too. What is it with this night? Is it the Stones? Is it the stage? These Idolites really seem to be coming into their own.

She doesn’t change up the song very much, save a small tweak in wording for gender’s sake. But she finally seems to shake herself out of stasis on stage, strutting as one must when singing a Mick Jagger song and wearing boots like the ones Paige laced up.

It’s a rowdy number, and while it’s not the best of the night, it shows there’s more to Paige than the past few weeks of so-so output.

“You did all right with it, man,” Randy says. “I wish you’d have had more energy with it.”

“I love that you used the stage,” Ellen says. “You sounded great. No one would know that you’ve been struggling with your voice.”

“At times, you may have gotten a little lost,” Kara says. “But … the young Paige is back. That’s what this performance is saying.”

Simon asks what’s wrong with Paige’s voice and she peeps out that she has laryngitis. My reaction is similar to his.

“OK, well, taking that into account, you did great,” Simon says. “I still think you’re better than that. You still, yet, haven’t quite connected. … But at least at moments we heard the big voice that we loved when we met you in Hollywood.”

Aaron sings “Angie,” one of my very favorite Stones songs. And man oh man, do I hate the beginning. He seems off-tempo, singing in a key that’s so high it makes him sound like a grade-schooler.

Once he finally, finally gets up off the stairs and punches some notes, he seems to shake out of his treble funk. But as good as some parts of the end of the song are, they can’t wash the sound of that awful intro out of my head.

“Your mom was absolutely right, you were definitely born to sing,” Randy says. “The tender moments — there were almost some times I could hear a little Justin Timberlake thing there. … I thought it was hot.”

Timberwhat? Dude. Dawg. No. There was no little Justin Timberlake within a nautical mile of that performance.

“Are you trying to do your hair like mine now?” Ellen says of Aaron’s new, hipper (I guess) ‘do. “I thought that was such a great song choice for you. I think that next to Siobhan — those were the two performances I think that stand out so far tonight.”


“Aaron, I beat you up good last week, but you showed me, man, tonight,” Kara says. “Really great.”

“Actually, you chose absolutely 100 percent the right song,” Simon says. “I think that what you did cleverly is that you sang the song within the limits of your vocal this time. … I think it was one of your strongest performances.”

Sigh. You can’t say I never tried.

By the way, is Aaron looking more and more like “Malcolm in the Middle’sFrankie Muniz every week or what?

Crystal sings “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and from the moment Seacrest reveals her song choice, I know we’re in for something special.

And how. She gives one of the Stones’ most timeless songs a bluesy, gospel-ish remake that fits it nattily. Her instincts are so crisp, her vocals are so tight. She’s just a pleasure to listen to.

Which is why I’m so surprised the judges are less than effusive about her this week.

“I don’t think it was your best performance,” Randy says. “[But] I love you.”

“You sing with such ease, it’s so effortless for you,” Ellen says. “What I’ve been missing from you that I saw a little bit tonight was personality.”

“I was thinking too much,” Crystal says.

“Well stop thinking. … Play more on stage,” Ellen says.

“Tonight … you loosened up a bit more,” Kara says. “It’s easy to watch, it really is.”

“The interesting thing is that you came out here tonight 100 percent the clear favorite,” Simon says. “And I think you chose a song which just didn’t have what you needed. … This is the first time where I think you were beaten by somebody, and that was Siobhan.”

So there we were all worried that the show would never pick up, but pick up I believe it has. This season seems to be the opposite of, say, season seven, when a stellar cast of folks like Michael Johns and Carly Smithson failed to live up to expectations. This year’s early rounds were so bad that we dropped any expectations altogether, so now the pleasant surprises are all the more enjoyable.

Siobhan is far and away the evening’s leader. I’m still reeling from how amazing her performance was. She’s in a category all her own, and I can only hope that she continues to evolve.

To the rankings:

Siobhan Magnus
Michael Lynche
Didi Benami
Crystal Bowersox

Casey James
Lacey Brown
Katie Stevens
Lee Dewyze
Paige Miles

Andrew Garcia
Aaron Kelly
Tim Urban

Who should go home: Tim Urban’s performance offended me most, and although it’s my fervent wish that a meting of cosmic justice will kick him off our screens for his transgressions, I think his departure is unlikely. I also didn’t much care for Aaron’s “Angie,” but since the judges loved it, I think he’s probably safe this week.

Who will go home: I think it’ll be Andrew. However, I can’t discount the possibility that Paige or Katie might wind up getting the ax despite good performances from them this week. This is the audience that beheaded Lilly Scott, after all. Who knows what madness might follow.

» COMING UP: There’s no wait this week — we get our results Wednesday evening. I’ll have a recap bright and early on Thursday at

Also, I’m working on a little surprise that will hopefully bring a few extra voices into this little site’s “Idol” mix. Intrigued? Check back later this week.

Between then and now, what did you think of the night’s performances? Siobhan’s? Tim’s? Crystal’s? Were the judges off on any of them? Was I? And who will wind up going home?

These questions and more are yours to answer in the comments section below. Don’t be shy.

Photos courtesy Fox