"The Voice" stepped out for its first live show of the season on Monday night, when the members of Teams Adam and Usher took the stage to compete for next week's top 12. Viewers will vote to put through two singers from each team of four, then each coach will choose one of his or her two remaining team members to put through as well. Teams Blake and Shakira will perform on Tuesday night (yes, another two-hour show), then we'll get results in a special one-hour show on Wednesday.
As the coaches kept telling us, the live performances often mark the moment when some singers start to shine, and others fade. True talent begins to distinguish itself. The same can be said not only for individuals, but for entire teams.
If it wasn't already clear, it certainly was apparent on Monday: Adam Levine's team is infinitely stronger than Usher's. We'll have to wait until Tuesday to know for sure, but based on the string of stellar performances from Levine's all-female team, Team Adam may be the strongest of them all. As on "American Idol," this season of "The Voice" may be all about the women.
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Then again, Levine asserted that the goodness of his singers "transcends gender," and he may have a point. There's not a weak link on his team. Amber Carrington and Judith Hill were particular standouts.
Young country-pop singer Carrington set the bar high straight out of the gate with a mesmerizingly nuanced performance of Rihanna's "Stay" that showed off her power, restraint and innate vocal sweetness, earning a standing ovation from Levine. "You had me for every second of that performance, and you could literally not have done a more incredible job," he said.
Levine sought to give earth-ethereal music student Sarah Simmons a "quiet moment" with Sarah McLachlan's "Angel," which she said was not only her go-to tune, but also a song that evoked the memory of a close friend who'd recently died in an accident. Simmons' performance was emotional, intense and riveting. Rival coach Blake Shelton called it "angelic." Shakira said -- in Spanish -- that it was spectacular. Still, it remains to be seen whether it was potent enough to push her past the other members of Team Adam.
"Someone has to win, someone has to lose," Levine noted, possibly tipping his hand. "At the end of the day, you're one of the most incredible singers to listen to I've ever heard in my life."
Indie singer-songwriter Caroline Glaser was urged to show her darker side with Ed Sheeran's "The A Team," but she mostly showed off her quirky-pretty coffee-shop charm. Usher predicted that, between the song and her dimples, Glaser would be raking in the votes. Levine urged her to feel proud of her "unique" sound.
Levine's last contender was former Michael Jackson background singer Judith Hill, who, despite having vocal nodules, hit some snazzy musical, emotional and, above all, stylistic notes on Nina Simone's "Feeling Good." Just watching her topknot shake was impressive.
"You're such a diva. You're such a freakin' diva," Shelton said. "That was awesome. It's always good with you, Judith. Always." Usher said Hill had taken everyone to church. But Levine was nearly tongue-tied as he tried to compliment the "cool" way Hill showcased her personality onstage. "Cool is the only word I can think of," he said.
But while Levine nurtured his team in the studio and took it shopping (at his family's Studio City store, M.Fredric), Usher gave his a workout in the kickboxing ring. They had to have the stamina to make it through a two-hour performance, he said, even if they needed to get through only 90 seconds on the show.
Ah, Usher and his curious coaching technique.
Though we'd been promised "stripped-down performances" that would allow us to focus on the singers' vocals, model Josiah Hawley rocked out with a full band on Muse's "Starlight." The coaches loved it, particularly Usher, who called Hawley a "heartthrob" and a "rock star."
Cathia, a Team Shakira steal for whom Usher had bumped one of his strongest contenders during the Knockout rounds, got to waltz with Usher, but then seemed to disappoint him. Shakira posited that Usher's ambitious song choice, Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing," may have been too much. Usher said he thought Cathia could have knocked it out of the park, then complimented her overall while dismissing her performances as less than incredible.
Singing against type more successfully was Vedo, to whom Usher assigned Phil Collins' "Against All Odds," a song the young R&B vocalist had never heard of. Vedo's lack of familiarity with the song seemed to allow him to re-create it as his own, though whether that was a good or bad thing depended which coach you asked. Shakira opted not to offer an opinion, saying she was just a "little ant in the infinity of the universe" but noted that the audience loved it. Levine called it "amazing." And Usher declared himself to be "100% pleased" by Vedo's performance. "I think you are definitely on track for success, brother," he said.
Usher saved his best -- appealing oddball rocker Michelle Chamuel -- for last and assigned her the perfect song, Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors." A man of many tricks, Usher made Chamuel, who has obviously spent a lifetime learning to embrace her own unusualness, sing the song to herself in the mirror. It was difficult to pinpoint the effect of the peculiar exercise, but Chamuel seems to have emerged with renewed confidence, showing off not only her vocal chops but also her vulnerability.
Shakira called the performance "beautiful" and "authentic." And everyone agreed Chamuel had had a "breakout moment." "Yay!" said Usher, with quiet pride afterward, complimenting Chamuel not only for her "incredible" performance but also her willingness to trust her instincts.
My instincts say Chamuel may be the member of Team Usher to stick around the longest, depending on how far Hawley's charisma carries him. Cathia seems to be the most at risk of elimination. And while none of Levine's singers deserve to go home, I think Simmons could be the most vulnerable, unless Levine sours on Glaser's quirky style.
What do you think?