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Danny Gokey is the night’s ‘Hero’ on ‘Idol’

The singer who recently lost his wife had the judges on their feet. Alexis Grace also managed to stand out of the "American Idol" pack.
/ Source: contributor

Changes abound on “American Idol.” Because there are 36 semifinalists instead of 24 this season, only the top three vote-getters of each of three semifinal rounds advance. The other nine either go home or wait for the wild-card round that decides the last three spots.

That meant that standing out was even more important for the lucky 12 who got to sing the first heat on Tuesday, and not many were able to clear the bar.

Now that Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell can only offer advice to the viewers who vote, a lot of singers can only hope that the camera time they got in earlier rounds will help carry them through to the finals.

The favorites The judges have always liked Danny Gokey, but he didn’t have to rely on their goodwill to stand out from the rest of the men. On a night that featured some of the most likeable figures from the auditions, the church music director who auditioned for the show four weeks after his wife died closed the show with a performance that got him a lot more than sympathy votes.

Picking “Hero” by Mariah Carey was a risk, especially on a night when the judges hated most of the song choices, but he was the clear favorite.

“The redeemer of the night right here, Danny Gokey! That was blazing hot!” Randy said in his usual understated way.

The judges loved Alexis Grace, for a number of reasons that went beyond her vocals on “I Never Loved a Man,” by Aretha Franklin. She’s the rare contestant who not only listened to the judges, but really got what they meant.

When the judges told her to “dirty herself up” after her initial auditions, she didn’t go out and get tattoos or do anything too crazy. She put a little pink in her hair. Voila! Now she’s superficially edgy, essentially sweet and the perfect “Idol” contestant. The judges ate her up, comparing her to season one winner Kelly Clarkson.

Tatiana Del Toro would have a much better shot under the old rules, where a semifinalist just had to avoid being one of the two worst singers among her gender each week. Simon called her “a complete and utter drama queen … desperate to be famous.”

Paula added that she was the most talked-about contestant on the show so far, which is accurate but not good for her long-term chances, since what people are talking about is how nutty she appeared during auditions and Hollywood week.

That being said, she took on a tough song in “Saving All My Love for You” by Whitney Houston, and she was surprisingly understated in her vocals. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the low bar that the judges had set for her. She has a shot.

It’s obvious the judges have a soft spot for oil rig roughneck Michael Sarver. His version of the time-honored “Idol” standard “I Don’t Wanna Be” by Gavin DeGraw wasn’t fantastic, but no contestant looked happier just to be there.

Of all the judges, it was Simon who was the most positive. “What I like about this show is that it does give people like you an opportunity. You’re a good, honest guy, hard-working (who) needs a break. For you in particular, I hope America does pick up the phone and give you another shot.”

Anoop Desai’s big asset is his likability, but he sang “Angel of Mine” by Monica, and it wasn’t as memorable as when he did “My Prerogative” during auditions. Like Sarver, he’s counting on goodwill he’s earned in previous weeks to help him on a night where he otherwise didn’t stand out from the pack.

“I’m not sure you had the riffs or the capability that nailed it in the way it needed to be nailed, but I believe you when you’re up there,” Kara said. “I’m hoping you get through.” If he does, that likability could take him a long way in the competition.

The possibilities The judges dinged Ann Marie Boskovich for her song choice, since they wanted something that skewed a little younger than “Natural Woman.” But she handled herself well onstage when criticized for the song choice. When Kara said she should have picked a newer song — like one of the ones Kara helped produce — Boskovich snapped back, “Something not as good?” Awkward! But it also showed enough good-natured self-possession to give her a chance, either here or in the wild-card round.

Ricky Braddy isn’t going to be one of the three people to advance to the finals on Wednesday, but he did well enough to become a strong candidate for the wild-card round. The judges liked his vocals on “A Song for You” by Leon Russell, but he didn’t get much camera time prior to this show and his star quality wasn’t enough to bridge that gap. Still, he had the a couple of the judges gushing. “It was effortless,” Kara said. “You have an incredible gift.

The big question for Brent Keith is whether his likability overcomes what was accurately called a forgettable performance of Jason Aldean’s “Hicktown.” Working in his favor is that he was the only country singer, and his talk of living paycheck to paycheck and taking one last chance at stardom tugged the heartstrings. Working against him is that other guys were better.

Jackie Tohn is another singer who would have had a better chance under the old format. She was just OK in opening the show with Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation,” and probably wasn’t good enough to extend that conversation into future weeks.

Thanks for coming Stevie Wright’s only shot is if Simon’s criticism gets her a ton of sympathy votes. “The good news is that at least you got some experience from this, but there is zero chance of you making it to the next round,” Simon told her after she sang, “You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift.

Stephen Fowler advanced to the semifinals despite forgetting the lyrics twice on the same song, but after he finished his cover of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” Simon said, “I actually wish you had forgotten the lyrics, because it was such a pointless performance.” 

Casey Carlson said she had a good time on stage, so at least she got something out of the night. But the girl from the bubble tea shop did anything but impress with The Police song, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.” When the judges start singing “Everything about that was wrong” while offering their criticism, that’s a really bad sign, and Carlson seemed to accept that her “Idol” journey likely ended with her final note Tuesday.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.