"I'm so proud of everyone tonight," Keith Urban said after the last singer had taken his turn. "You guys have stepped it up enormously."
It's true. Blanketed in the security of a familiar song, many of the singers displayed a new level of comfort and control, prompting Urban to spring to his feet repeatedly to bestow standing ovations. Uncharacteristically, Jennifer Lopez declined to rise from her chair to join her fellow judge, probably because the baby-doll dress she was wearing was dangerously short.
Even Harry Connick Jr. saw fit to offer an enthusiastic whistle to the occasional singer and rolled out more than a few of his "great job" kudos, as well at least one "fantastic job," and his highest praise of all: calling a performance "really, really strong."
Interspersed with duets of uneven quality (Jessica Meuse and Caleb Johnson on Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty's "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," remarkably good; Dexter Roberts and C.J. Harris on Darius Rucker's "Alright," not so much) as well as baby pictures and pre-performance video interviews with the contestants' families (I guess they're not doing a "birth year songs" theme this season?) the Top 8 turned in solo performances as follows:
Jessica Meuse, apparently a cranky baby, reprised her original song "Blue Eyed Lie," as well as the guitar-strumming shoulder twitch the judges had admired during her audition. With the band behind her she had a fuller sound.
Urban called it "a great start to the show" and said that, while her tone and ferocity reminded him of Grace Slick's, she had to work on moving her whole body. Her legs, he noted, were "dead still." Were her shoes her own? He wondered. "Did you borrow them? Are they Harry's shoes?" Lopez said she felt the original material had given her a better sense of Meuse and what sort of album she'd make, calling the performance "really perfect." Connick said he was reminded of "Cher from the '70s or Nancy Sinatra" and admired Meuse's cool presentation, saying he liked it even better the second time around. He also disagreed with Urban, contending that if the "intensity level is there," it's fine not to move much.
Before C.J. Harris took the stage to sing the Allman Brothers Band's "Soul Shine," we were reminded that during Harris' audition Lopez had observed that there were things he did "consistently wrong," but that those could be fixed. Judging from the duet Harris sang with Dexter Roberts, he still has a way to go, but his performance of "Soul Shine" was better than usual in terms of pitch and didn't lack for commitment.
Lopez said Harris had "felt it and we felt it," adding that the light shining from behind him, "didn't even have to be there" because something shines from him anyway "that just touches my heart." Connick called Harris' voice "special" and then gave him a lecture about "pitch, intonation, singing in tune." Urban said he'd "reined it in way better" than he had the first time around and had done a "good job."
Stepping out amidst a jumble of table and floor lamps (what, was the hotel down the street redecorating its lobby or something?), Sam Woolf sang Ed Sheeran's "Lego House," looking marginally less shy than he has in past weeks.
Connick told Woolf that his issue was not "confidence," but "connection," and advised him to just pick someone and smile at them when fans scream at him. "It will change your world, I promise you," Connick said. Urban said Woolf was "getting better" and "looser" every week. "It doesn't have to be perfect," he said. "It has to be soulful and there's no soul in perfection." Lopez said she'd gotten another "glimpse of the magic of Sam Woolf."
Malaya Watson earned a standing ovation from Urban with her smooth, powerful take on Aretha Franklin's "Ain't No Way," and may take the prize for the singer who has shown the most dramatic growth during the competition.
Urban told her she was "on fire" and complimented her on her control and restraint. Lopez said Watson had blossomed into a star "before our eyes" and that, while she was "still that same little crazy girl who walked in," she had "so much more control" and "poise." "You're going to be such a huge star," Lopez predicted. "You're going to run away with this competition." Connick called the performance "really, really strong" and said Watson was "doing everything right," and then gave her a long lecture about … um … something music-related.
Dexter Roberts gave his best performance at least since he sang "Lucky Man" and maybe ever on the show, with an easygoing take on Brett Eldredge's "One Mississippi."