Thursday, March 16, 2006

Warbling in a Winter Wonderland

If you asked me last week, I’d have said it would be a cold day in Hollywood when Bucky Covington outperforms Ace Young on an R&B-themed episode of American Idol. And it was. Over the past several chilly days, snow fell on the desert sands near Palm Springs, blanketed the southern California mountain ranges, and even lightly coated the hilltops of the O.C., my home county.

Stevie Wonder has been an American idol for 40 years, but you wouldn’t know that by asking newbies Bucky or Kellie Pickler. Their prior unfamiliarity with Stevie’s extensive body of work is mirrored in the American Idol audience, where the cultural gap is also generational.

My son, now a college student, has been exposed to a wide variety of popular music all his life. Chris’s personal tastes range from Pantera to Japanese soundtracks, but he is an American Idol fan rooting this season for Paris Bennett and Taylor Hicks. The other day I was driving my four-wheeled stereo around town and Chris was a captive passenger. I had been listening to my favorite Stevie Wonder CDs ever since Ryan Seacrest announced this week’s theme.

Suddenly Chris asked me, “Why do people think Stevie Wonder is so great?”

I paused before I answered – only because I was singing along passionately to Songs in the Key of Life. My family teases me about being like that annoying character, Brenda, from Scary Movie who instantly stops whatever she is doing to shriek, “That’s my song!”

Anyway, Chris knows full well what to expect when he asks me leading questions, so he got what he deserved: a music history lesson. Then the distinctive opening strains of the next track began to play and I shut up, proving that music does speak louder than words. Pastime Paradise is Wonder’s 1976 composition filched by Coolio for his monster hit from 1995, Gangsta’s Paradise. With a look of recognition and surprise, Chris observed, “Hey, isn’t that Amish Paradise by Weird Al Yankovic?”

Motown, we have a problem.

Stevie Wonder is the quintessential singer’s songwriter, not to mention a gifted singer himself, a record producer, and a versatile musician who played nearly all the instruments on his album Music of My Mind. Some songs that showcase a vocalist’s power feature a well-placed glory note. Stevie’s entire catalog is glorious – but melodically complex even for the most proficient singer. He is one of the few so-called pop geniuses from the 1960s who not only survived but thrived in succeeding decades, dominating and innovating R&B in the 1970s.

As if having to master Stevie’s masterpieces wasn’t challenge enough, this week the top 12 performed for the first time on the full-sized stage before a regular, noisy, intimidating audience. So – which of the American Idol contestants passed the Stevie Wonder test, who fell short, and who copped out?

Greatest Hits

Elliott Yamin knocks me off my feet – and, according to my traffic meter, I am not alone. What a faithful tribute to the joyfulness of Stevie Wonder and what an appealing introduction for new listeners. Elliott’s talent and humility give me goose bumps. When he was wiping away tears of happiness at meeting his idol, Stevie, I was crying, too.

Over four American Idol appearances, Elliott has performed two of my Stevie Wonder favorites with awe and tender loving care, starting with If You Really Love Me. Elliott's performance this week was the one I anticipated with the most excitement. I hoped he would sing Knocks Me Off My Feet, a gorgeous love song with special meaning for my husband and me. It was a dream come true for me and obviously even more so for Elliott. We already know that Elliott is technically adept, the best among the top 12. So I think he was smart to select a song that, while by no means easy to sing, displayed his warmth and emotion, as well as his skill. The payoff was the most intimate performance of the evening.

Taylor Hicks was, as usual, the most compelling entertainer. The stage may have gotten bigger, but it was still not big enough to contain Taylor’s free spirit. If I ruled the world, the AI5 finalists would be Taylor and Elliott and they would have their own weekly two-hour show. Taylor is such a throwback to the wonderful soul greats of my childhood that, watching him Tuesday, I wished my sister were still alive to see him.

Like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, Taylor has his own unique phrasing, the mark of a confident, naturally gifted singer. My favorite line from his Living for the City: “His parents give him love and a-ffec-tion.” He did superb justice to Stevie’s gritty tale of racial injustice. Plus, he can really dance. Seriously.

Paris Bennett showed off her eye-catching moves, adorable spunk and authentic soulfulness. I expected her to choose one of Stevie’s bouncy hits like Isn’t She Lovely or Sir Duke. Performing the relatively unknown All I Do was a bold risk that worked spectacularly. I felt like I was watching the opening number on the Paris Bennett world tour.

Katharine McPhee more than met the challenge of Until You Come Back to Me, immortalized by Aretha Franklin. In fact, she was flat out awesome. Despite a bit of shouting at the top of her register, her pitch and tone were just lovely, especially in her clean, silky ending. Normally Katharine smiles and flirts with the camera even when delivering the saddest lyrics. Her coy self-consciousness wasn’t as distracting this week.

Lisa Tucker has been stuck in a rut of seamless ballads, none of which I can recall right now. She tends to be smooth and professional to the point of blandness. On Signed, Sealed, Delivered, she displayed some welcome energy and dynamics. She even stole a “whoo” from Taylor’s repertoire. Let’s hope being in the bottom three this week shakes this talented contestant out of her bad-choice complacency.

Bucky Covington was my happiest surprise of the evening. His voice isn’t the most flexible, but he packs a lot of blue-eyed soul into his growl. I give him maximum credit for venturing outside his comfort zone and not copping out. Considering that he never heard Superstition before, Bucky offered a credible version that compares favorably to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s.

Songs in the Key of Ouch

Mandisa picked the wrong song, Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing, and the wrong key. I bet that never happens again. After struggling with her lower register through the first verse, she raised the melody an octave and then lowered it, trying to salvage the song. And yet she still outsang five other contestants. Just imagine what she could have done with Golden Lady or Superwoman - with gender modifications, of course. Sigh.

Kellie Pickler was about as far out of her element as she could get. Her bare bones performance of Blame It on the Sun was subdued, but her tone was winsome. Apparently, Simon missed her trademark shimmy shake and disparaged her outfit, a very flattering yet fairly modest dress. Kellie, just ignore Simon and his bipolar sadism. But pay attention to the vocal coaches.

Kevin Covais. I remember Nikko Smith. Nikko Smith knows how to sing Part Time Lover. Kevin Covais is no Nikko Smith. What happened to our sweet little Kevin? Chicken Little has become the cock o’ the walk.

Melissa McGhee started Lately lost and shaky, forgot the lyrics, recovered for a gutsy finish, and won’t be back next week.

Ace Young was first to perform and first to disappoint. Ace did an okay version of Do I Do, but Mario Vasquez sang the stuffing out of it last year (see Covais, Kevin). Ace is a tenor with a sensual breathiness and a pleasing falsetto. If he had chosen one of Stevie’s lush, romantic songs, like Creepin’, he might be on top of the world instead of in the bottom three.

Chris Daughtry was the pre-ordained showstopper – not by Broadway standards, but of the theme park variety where the grand finale is accompanied by deafeningly loud music and blindingly bright lights. Chris was my biggest disappointment of the night. Higher Ground was the most predictable, safest choice of the night. He was out of his depth and he knew it. He was lucky to get a glowing review from the judges – and he knew it. He hit a hideous clunker on the line “Sleepers just stop sleeping.” Check it out.

Like Ace, Chris squandered the opportunity to perform a song that would have won new fans and cemented his base. Chris has the potential to be another Aaron Lewis of Staind, one of the most powerful rock singers of the post-modern era. Chris could have taken a hauntingly beautiful Stevie song like Visions with its stripped down arrangement and blown Wonderland away. Instead we have to closely watch the Ford commercials to spot his softer side on Toad the Wet Sprocket’s All I Want [note to self: dig out those Toad/Glen Phillips CDs].

Shame on the judges for damning Elliott with faint praise. I have been a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan since the days of Hillel Slovak. Anthony Kiedis is a highly quotable front man, but he’s no singing idol.

As long as American Idol is a singing competition, I will take “just a good Stevie Wonder rendition" over a louder, shinier Anthony Kiedis every time.