American Idol: Is Sam Woolf the 'Dark Horse'?

American Idol recap: Sam Woolf and Jena Irene continued to improve and impress. But Caleb Johnson also had a big moment in Wednesday night's American Idol performance.

REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
American Idol contestant Sam Woolf poses at the party for the finalists in West Hollywood, California in February 2014.

With only six contestants left in the American Idol race, one of those singers may now be emerging as a 'Dark Horse.'

That's not to say that Sam Woolf is likely to win. But he could eke out a third or fourth place. Yes, American Idol fans have voted Sam into the dreaded Bottom Three, but not in recent weeks. And unlike many of the remaining American Idol signers, he continues to show improvement.

On Wednesday night, American Idol producers had each contestant sing two songs, one "country" and one "rock and roll." Given that Jena Irene and Caleb Johnson are both natural rockers, and country music is the genre for Alabamians C.J. Harris and Jessica Meuse, those four had the edge going into the show.

But it was Sam Woolf who earned the first of two "Goosies" ratings from judge Jennifer Lopez.

Sam sang "It's Time" by Imagine Dragons. At the tender age of 18, Sam continues to develop as a performer. His voice is expressive, rich, and as smooth as a heaping scoop of Bedford Farms vanilla ice cream. Unfortunately, his facial expressions are still catching up to his vocals. Still, JLo declared that Sam had arrived with a "full-blown performance that gave me 'goosies'" – her term for goose bumps. Judge Keith Urban was less effusive, but agreed that Sam had at least two special moments. Harry Connick Jr. described it as "the perfect song choice." The girls in the audience ate it up.

But it was Sam's second performance of the night that may have sealed his status as a Serious Contender. He nailed Shania Twain's "You're Still the One." This was one of his best performances on American Idol, IMHO. The judges were less impressed. Keith advised Sam to "relax more." Harry said it was too "rhythmically perfect" and too "dynamically perfect." And Jennifer wanted more moments of "feeling."

Based on The Jennifer Lopez Goosies Meter, the other Big Moment of the night was Jena Irene's performance of "So Small," a Carrie Underwood hit. For this viewer, Jena's performance started out uneven vocally, but Jena gained some control over the ballad as it built.

Keith gushed that Jena, at 17, exemplifies "everything that Idol is about." He has enjoyed being a part of Jena's journey. JLo said that she "felt the story" that Jena was telling, and that brought the "goosies." Harry disagreed with both of his fellow judges. He said the song had "too many ornaments" and "I didn't know where you were going." But given her better previous performances, he added that it probably won't matter in terms of the competition.

Moving out of "goosies" territory, Caleb Johnson won kudos from the judges for his performance of "Sting Me" by The Black Crowes. This was a now trademark Caleb performance: Loud, energetic, flawless rock and roll.

But what carried it over the top for the judges was Caleb's recovery after losing the microphone stand. In one of his flourishes, it slid to the back of the stage. But Caleb chased it down and managed to recover without missing a note or a beat. "That's Rock n Roll!" enthused coach Randy Jackson after the performance. "Reckless and wild!"

JLo said that Caleb had created "a moment." Harry described it as "virtually impossible to beat." And Keith said it was "Killer," adding that "despite the big crack in the performance, you spackled right over it."

For this viewer, the highlight of the night was Alex Preston's performance of "Always on my Mind" by Willie Nelson. It was a vintage Alex interpretation of a great song: subtle, flawless, and moving. Harry Connick apparently agreed:. "I feel very lucky to have heard you do that tonight ... You're an artist. I admire that. You did a terrific job."

Jennifer described it as the "perfect balance of Alex and a beautiful song everyone loves."

Country singer Keith Urban was not quite as taken as his colleagues. This is a song, said Keith, that is magnificent and that he loves. While praising Alex for making the song his own, he said that Alex didn't bring the emotional depth inherent in the song. "I would like a little more heartbreak in that performance. I heard it, but I didn't feel it as much as I should."

Who's going home Thursday night? It's increasingly obvious that C.J. Harris is out of his league. But contestants from the South seem to have a voting block that keeps C.J. in this show. At the half-way point Wednesday night, Jena Irene was ranked No. 1 by fans and Alex Preston was ranked No. 6. After Round Two, Caleb Johnson was No. 1, and Alex as still No. 6.

Based on Wednesday night's performances, C.J. Harris and Jessica Meuse should be closest to the exit.

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