American Idol Premiere 5th Judge: Heartbreaking Willie Spence Tribute, Lauren Daigle Surprise

If this is going to be the caliber of talent this season on “American Idol,” they may have to expand to a Top 40 after Hollywood Week. After one episode, there are already well over half a dozen serious contenders.

It was a night of powerful voices, and heartbreaking tributes. One was for Season 19 runner-up Willie Spence, who tragically died this past Octobor. The young woman he was partnered with in Hollywood returned to honor his memory by giving her own dreams a second chance and could hardly get through her audition.

Another singer paid tribute to his father with a beautifully heartfelt performance, while a young woman paid tribute to her grandfather in what turned into an emotional moment for her when she was shocked to see the artist she was covering come walking into the room and singing along with her. It was definitely an “Idol” first and created a great moment.

As usual, there was a wide array of musical styles on the night, from piano crooning to doo-wop to country and even an original song by a sixteen year old that sounded like it could be on the radio today. Yes, she wears her young influences in her melodies, lyrics and the tone of her voice, but she still managed to blow everyone away — including her tear-filled father.

Once again, we found ourselves growing more and more impressed with this panel and how they work with these young people. They might be called Judges, but they’re doing as much Coaching as anyone over on “The Voice.” At this audition stage, they’re doing way more.

Whereas “The Voice” Coaches tell contestants why they didn’t turn for them in the Blind Auditions, these three are taking the time to coach the nervous singers in real time to try and pull their best out of them before passing judgment. Twice tonight we got to witness the magic of that kind of work, and it was inspirational.

Fair warning, since I’m safe at home, I’m probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe.

And just for fun, I’m going to rank the performances from worst to first to see who my favorites are each week. That way I can see who’s the best and then see if you get it right with your votes — i.e., agree with me.

In a cute segment, three different contestants bearing the names of our three judges each auditioned. Luckily for the OG versions, these newcomers didn’t hold a candle to them musically, so we think they won’t be having to change their names, as Katey hilariously suggested might have to happen. This was an entertaining diversion, but we’re glad we didn’t spend too much time with any of them. There was even a Ryan Secrest, but we didn’t even see her perform.

Results: Ultimately, no

(“In the Still of the Night (I’ll Remember),” The Five Satins – 19, Pittsburgh, PA) His bird Mango did not rise to the occasion and perform the way Jack wanted — he didn’t repeat anything or dance as promised — and frankly, we don’t think Jack did, either. He said he wanted to bring doo-wop back, but doo-wop has a lot more energy and charisma than what Jack displayed, even before he started singing.

His voice was too thin, but he’s a competent enough piano player. Maybe he and Mango could accompany someone else singing lead? There was nothing beyond high school talent show in that vocal. Katy liked the timbre of his voice, the “beautiful shake,” but he has to work on his breathing to be able to hold his notes out.

Results: N, N, N

(“Love Me Like You Mean It,” Kelsea Ballerini – 21, Honolulu, HI) Lyric is the daughter of Glenn Medeiros, who broke out with “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You” in 1987, topping several international charts, and finally hit number one in the US two years later on “She Ain’t Worth It” featuring Bobby Brown.

The twang she put on this song wasn’t sincere, and her performance came off a little too earnest. She has a nice tone to her voice, but needed to relax into this moment, slow down and breathe. “You flew ten hours to be cute and safe?” Katy chastised her, saying what we were all thinking. That just wasn’t enough, and yet it’s clear she’s got more talent inside of her than whats on display here.

(“Before He Cheats,” Carrie Underwood) Once again, we got a masterclass in the judges pushing a singer to be the best they can be, with Katy literally grappling with Lyric while she performed to try and get her to get angry. Luke urged her to make an ugly face and really get into it. She was still being “cute and safe,” as if she didn’t know she could dig deeper (or needed to in order to win a show like this). Katy took a chance on her, but she needs to stop being so sweet!

Results: Y, Y, N

(“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye – 28, Holly Grove, AR) LL definitely has some pipes, but there was something missing throughout this audition. She came with all the personality we would want for this journey, but it seemed to stop when she started singing. What we got was a solid rendition of a classic song with nothing really memorable about it. Even as we write about it, we’re forgetting what she did.

It was as if she was overconfident and didn’t think she needed to fight for this, as that’s what the performance felt like. Or maybe it’s that she was over-nervous and overcompensating by trying too hard. That’s what Lionel picked up, telling her there’s an artist underneath the “comedy.” We were with him; you could hear the talent, it just wasn’t coming through properly. He stripped the swagger to reveal the soul underneath.

(“A Song for You,” Donny Hathaway) It was like they slowly pulled a new singer out of her with each gesture and note as she performed this piece until they were left with the raw materials of someone who could be very good. She does have the tools, but she doesn’t always use them right. Some of the runs early on felt self-indulgent, but by the end, it felt far more tasteful. She’s definitely rough, but I could see giving her a chance to go home, get better and prove herself.

Luke thanked her for making him respect his fellow judges even more. He sat silently by while Lionel and Katy massaged this new version of herself out and was mesmerized — as we were — by the change. It is a testament to their artistry and strength as mentors that they saw that diamond and just started to polish it. He said he’d written her off, but she proved him wrong in the end.

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“Fifteen,” Haven Madison – 16, Clarksville, TN) “Idol Across America” turned into a shot to sing for the judges — and then they made her the first contestant to sing for the entire season. You know, no pressure! At least she has some experience, having toured and even performed with her dad her entire life. Look, this wasn’t a pitch-perfect audition, but those years of experience, and maybe some genetics, have created something special.

She brought an original song to the audition and it is a killer track, which certainly helped a lot. Add to that the different facets of her voice, which were all fascinating and compelling. She needs to clean up her pitch a bit and maybe use the falsetto less (and work on strengthening it), but her full voice and range and the character in her lower register are really great. Even better she had us feeling something with this one. Kate was right in that each choice she made was intentional and only strengthened the overall performance.

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“Talking to the Moon,” Bruno Mars – 21, Mason, OH) It wouldn’t be a new season of “American Idol” if Katy didn’t develop (or fake) a crush on at least one contestant. Enter Michael, who sounded a whole lot like Bruno when this piece started. We were worrying it was almost an impression, but then he found his way to some originality. Either way, though, there is no denying that he has this sweet, smooth tone to his voice that really does caress your ears in the gentlest way. There was also an innocence to the way he performed the song, which is at least party of why Katy was so enamored. That he’s a good-looking guy on top of it certainly helped.

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“You Say,” Lauren Daigle – 20, Douglasville, GA) We love the surprise Ryan and the producers made for Megan after this audition. She switched to strictly Christian music in honor of her grandfather, who wished it of her. After he passed away a year ago, she dedicated this performance to him so it was already going to be emotional. Then, Ryan brought in Lauren Daigle herself to wait outside with Megan’s shocked mother. Even more poignant, Lauren tried out in Seasons 9 and 11, so she knows this journey (or at least part of it).

Even more incredible, they had Lauren sneak in and join Megan halfway through the chorus, which totally derailed her. But we’d heard enough to know that she’s got that drive and passion for this, and a nice voice to go along with it. She handled those lower early measures and was able to pick it up for that chorus. This is a song of passion and feeling, and Megan wasn’t all the way where Lauren takes it, but she was pretty close. We also loved her reaction!

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“Simple Man,” Lynyrd Skynyrd – 18, Gattman (near Amory, MS)) Clearly in his nerves and only able to steal little glimpses at the judges while he sang, Colin is everything this show’s audience roots for. He’s a humble, sweet guy with that gravelly rasp that everyone kills for. Plus, he made some choices in the melody of this to tweak it just enough to put his own flare on it. Add to that, he’s more than likely extremely raw and untested and there is so much potential in front of him if he can hack this journey.

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“Hurts So Good,” John Mellencamp – 19, Amory, MS) Not a typo or a mistake, Zachariah is from the same small town as Colin and there must be something in the water there. Or maybe it’s in the burgers. A master burger maker, Colin came in with even more polish and showmanship than Colin, but with that same beautifully rich tone to his voice. It’s his own grit and gravel, and he’s got a smooth side, as well. He clearly knows his instrument far more and is way further along on his journey as a singer. Sometimes it felt a little corny, but for the most part, he is grade A entertainment with a killer voice to go with the show.

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“New York State of Mind,” Billy Joel – 17, Vancouver, BC) Skipping all the bells and whistles, Tyson let the richness of his voice carry him through this classic, even accompanying himself on the keys just like the Piano Man would do. There’s a youthfulness to his voice, but it is so textured at the same time that he draws you in with every utterance. It’s like there’s a young kid and an old soul wrestling inside his voice box and somehow they’re both winning at the same time.

It was such a confident and remarkable performance, it was like we were watching someone who’s been performing for decades coming back for their accolades at the Grammys — and it’s a teenager! His choices were all so classy, his pitch was flawless — this kid is in a class all his own. The judges were right there with us, handing out the first Platinum Ticket of the season!

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“Monsters,” James Blunt – 18, Kahuku, HI) Just months after losing his father, Iam took on this monster of a track about saying goodbye and it was so beautifully sincere and emotional. His voice was smooth and sweet and filled with such heart and optimism and pain all at the same time. We’re not sure if he can connect with any lyric as much as this personal song, but if he can, watch out. This was a moment that left not a dry eye anywhere. If he can deliver this kind of impact each time, he’s going to be a force on this journey.

Results: Y, Y, Y

(“I’m Here,” from “The Color Purple” – 21, Austin, TX) Kya was on the show two years ago alongside Willie Spence, and his duet partner during Hollywood Week. She didn’t advance beyond that week, but WIllie obviously went on to be runner-up. He was supposed to be with her for this audition, but tragically passed away in October 2022 at just 23 years old from a car accident. It was Willie who urged her to come back and chase her dream; he’d already been inviting her to join him on stage.

Willie even helped her pick her audition song this time around. It took everything Kya had to get through this song, and she didn’t get through it without breaking down a couple of times. But all of that pain she poured into her voice, and each crack only made the performance more special. This was one of the most emotionally powerful moments we’ve ever seen on the show, and that’s true even if we didn’t have the same heartache for the loss of Willie. She took her pain and she made beautiful art from it. And wow, does she have a powerful instrument. Honed and tamed, it could probably do just about anything.

Results: Y, Y, Y

“American Idol” continues Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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