American Idol: Phil Phillips sizzles with Damien Rice hit 'Volcano'

American Idol Top 4: With only two weeks left, Phil Phillips delivers a breakthrough performance of "Volcano." But American Idol judges reserve their standing ovations for Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez.

(Michael Becker / AP Photo/Fox)
The final four American Idol competitors (l. to r.) – Phil Phillips, Hollie Cavanagh, Joshua Ledet, Jessica Sanchez –  are shown in Los Angeles, Calif. The final four competed on Wednesday May 9, and another contestant will be voted off on Thursdays results show.

On Wednesday night's episode of American Idol, it was clear that while the judges may have failed in the judging department this season, they certainly exceeded expectations when it came to selecting contestants.  With only two weeks left, Season 11 of American Idol has proven to be one of the most talented seasons ever. With the coveted hometown visits on the horizon, the final four fought to deliver performances that would earn them their place in the top three.

The first round of performances were California-themed; the song needed to be about California or sung by a band/artist from California. Thank goodness we only have two weeks left in the competition; it seems that the producers are completely tapped out when it comes to choosing creative themes. In the second round, Ryan Seacrest announced that contestants needed to perform a song that they wished they had written. Or was it a song that inspired them?  Ryan himself seemed unsure, using both descriptions to characterize the second round. Either way, it was a vast improvement over the first round theme.

The contestants seemed to think so too. The final four appeared to be on auto pilot during the first round, each of them understanding that with America's short-attention span, they needed to focus their efforts on the second round.  But with a talent pool like that of Season 11, even when phoning it in, they are some of the most gifted vocalists on television.  Much to NBC's ('The Voice') chagrin.

Phil Phillips: In the first round, Phil chose to sing Creedence Clearwater Revival's, "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?"  The song was characterized by Phillip's trademark, laid back (some might argue, lazy) style.  There was nothing memorable in the performance and Phillip once again left his die-hard fans unsatisfied by failing to reach his potential.  Well, the teenage girls screaming throughout the show seemed satisfied, but as Randy Jackson would say, Phillip could sing the phone book and they would be squealing with delight.  B-

It was in his second performance that Phillip really stepped up his game and had the kind of moment fans have been waiting for.  Phillip chose Damien Rice's, "Volcano," a surprising but brilliant song choice (and a personal favorite of yours truly). This was the kind of performance that Phillip could have had several weeks ago had he chosen a better Dave Matthew's song. It was a relief to finally see him tap into his artistry and deliver something above and beyond what he's been putting out week after week. Everything about the performance worked. The solo cellist, the female vocalist accompanying him, the darkened stage and Phillip's obvious connection to the music all combined to create a haunting and beautiful Idol moment. JLo claimed that it was one of the most poignant moments in all eleven seasons of American Idol and the other judges agreed. But it seems that the judges have recently added riders to their contracts, stating that they will only get to their feet for Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez. A

Hollie Cavanagh:  Hollie earned surprising praise from the judges for her first round performance of Journey's, "Faithfully," despite the fact that she seemed to be struggling to find the right key the entire song. Randy was thrown into fits of misty-eyed nostalgia recalling his younger days, when he was a member of Journey.  (If one were to total the time Randy spends reflecting on his time in the band, they would find that it exceeds his actual time in the band, which lasted one whole year.) Despite the pitch issues that the judges didn't seem to hear, Hollie did bring her new found confidence with her again this week and performed the song without that desperate pleading gleam in her eye that seemed to beg, "Please like me!"  C

For her second song, Hollie chose the Bonnie Raitt hit, "I Can't Make You Love Me."  It didn't have any of the pitch problems of the first but Hollie failed to have a moment. Jennifer wished that Hollie had identified with the song better and told her she could have imagined she was singing it to America.  Wow, thanks Jennifer. She always knows just what to say to cheer someone up. In truth, Hollie has made us love her. Wednesday night's video of her from her tearful Season 10 audition showed the remarkable evolution to the woman we see on the a stage today. More accurate lyrics would have been, "I can't make you vote for me, 'cause you won't."  B

Joshua Ledet:  Ah, Joshua.  The contestant single-handedly responsible for the judges getting their weekly dose of cardio by jumping up and down. This week Joshua took on Josh Groban's, "You Raise me Up," a song that I'm surprised the judges haven't dedicated to Joshua by now. Instead, Joshua dedicated it to his father, which was the least he could do after drawing attention to his father's rather rotund belly when he joined Joshua on stage earlier in the season. The performance included the choir that Joshua seems to keep on stand-by and had a definite gospel feel to it. The judges enjoyed it – which always seems like an understatement where Josh is concerned – but they weren't on their feet. It's hard to tackle a Josh Groban song, but Joshua gave it a good effort.  B+

For his second song, Joshua proved that he is an avid fan of "The Voice." Of course he can't come right out and say it, Nigel Lythgoe would have him exiled. But both of his song selections were previously performed by finalists of "The Voice." "It's a Man's World," was done by second-place finalist Juliet Simms. Should Joshua have chosen a song by the actual Voice winner?  Nah, Joshua knows, and you know, that Juliet Simms was robbed. OK - back to Idol.  Joshua delivered a stunning performance of the James Brown hit and as Ryan even pointed out, the judges couldn't wait to get on their feet.  This time, it was well-deserved - Joshua was on fire Wednesday night and tapping into a sex appeal that hasn't really been seen since very early on in the competition.  A

Jessica Sanchez:  Jessica selected Etta James's, "Steal Away," for her first song.  Where the heck is Jimmy when this girl is making song selections?  Just because she has the vocal chops to take on an Etta James song, doesn't mean she should be. She's 16 years old and if she wants to win, teenage girls need to be able to identify with her. Teenage girls, for better or worse, do not identify with Etta James. Did she sing it well? Of course she did.  But was it the wrong song choice once again? Of course it was. Did the judges give critical feedback? Of course they didn't.  B

For round two, Jessica made another song choice more suited to someone twice her age but this time the song had meaning and was not just some excuse for her to prance around on stage pretending to be the diva she hasn't yet earned the right to be. Jessica chose Jennifer Holliday's, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." While Jessica has always had the voice, she has not always had the emotional connection to the audience or to the songs that she's chosen. This round, everything came together and Jessica delivered the most riveting performance of the season. This performance was so good, the grades for Phil and Josh's round two performances needed to be adjusted in order to accurately convey just how special Jessica's was. The judges were enraptured and no doubt secretly smug about their decision to save Jessica.  A+


It's silly to even call this a prediction. Hollie Cavanagh, the little engine that could, has been living on borrowed time for weeks and after her peers delivered monumental performances, it was clear that Hollie has made it as far as she can in a season of high-caliber contestants.  Hollie will go home not because she isn't super talented, but because she isn't as super-talented as the remaining three.

If Hollie doesn't go home this week, it will be one of the biggest upsets in American Idol history.  Do you hear that Ryan??  Better make sure Nigel doesn't tamper with your results envelope.

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