'The Voice' Playoffs, Part 1: Don't call it a comeback

The Voice Season 13’s Not-Live Playoffs kicked off Monday, with the combined 12 contestants on Jennifer Hudson and Blake Shelton’s teams competing for spots in the semifinals.

“Wait just a goshdarned minute,” you may be muttering to yourself right now. “Twelve contestants? Weren’t there only five members left per team, after last week’s Knockout Rounds? There should only be 10!” Well, congrats on your stellar math skills, dear reader. You are correct. But you forgot about the “Comeback Contestants,” basically this show’s equivalent of American Idol’s Wild Cards. This meant that two previously and presumably prematurely eliminated singers — Lucas Holliday for Team J.Hud, Natalie Stovall for Team Blake — returned to the show for another go.

Actually, the Comeback Contestants didn’t “come back” for very long. Spoiler alert: Neither Lucas nor Natalie advanced. We’ll see if this week’s other Comeback kids — Karli Webster for Team Miley and Whitney Fenimore for Team Adam — fare any better, or if this Comeback Contestant gimmick was just a cruel (if suspenseful and entertaining) way to extend their misery 15 minutes while stomping all over their neon dreams. On the positive side, though, Lucas did redeem himself with his best performance of the season, and Natalie, a montaged contestant who’d received little screen time this season, finally got to flaunt her fiddlin’ skills. So there’s that.

Jennifer had the stronger team of the night, so she faced some difficult decisions. I definitely think she made a major error (Can we please have another Team J.Hud Comeback round next week???), but Blake for the most part got it right.

Let’s get to the recap.

TEAM J.HUD

Davon Fleming

Jennifer picked her own Oscar-baiting song, “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls, for Davon to sing. No pressure there. But this dreamboy nailed it. From the first note of the remarkable near-a cappella opening, the audience was whooping and hollering for Davon, and he set the bar high for rest of the night with a master-class performance. He exhibited just the right amount of drama and just the right amount of taste and restraint, and it already felt like finale night; “I Am Changing” could be Davon’s coronation song. And I am telling you, he’s not going — Davon will be in the finals.

A four-way standing ovation from the coaches ensued, and for extra ammo, Jennifer even threw Miley’s star-spangled KISS boot in Davon’s direction. I bet Chris Weaver was a little intimidated, and maybe even jealous. “If someone said, ‘You’re gonna sing this song tomorrow,’ I’d have a heart attack and I’d run away,” Adam Levine said, ignoring the obvious fact that anyone who’d just suffered cardiac arrest probably wouldn’t be up for even a light jog. Jennifer admitted that “I Am Changing” is “one of the hardest songs to do vocally,” but told Davon, “I knew you could handle it. You outdid yourself with it.”

Hannah Mrozak

Throughout this season, Hannah has been positioned as a Kelly Clarkson type, and I think if Kelly were still around this week as an adviser, she would’ve broken into tears again over Hannah’s passionate, Lovato-level performance of Kesha’s triumph-of-the-spirit anthem “Learn to Let Go.” Hannah really seemed to be feeling this, and so was I. (I was also feeling that Robert-Palmer-video-girl topknot and those doorknocker earrings. The girl looked fierce.) She cried, she snarled, she dropped it low, she was a beast on the mic. I always thought Hannah seemed like a girl-next-door/America’s sweetheart, so I enjoyed watching her claws come out.

“I was mesmerized by that performance. I’m going, ‘Oh, my gosh, who’s this girl all of a sudden? Where did she come from?’ And what a great time to do that,” said Blake. “I feel like a star was born on this stage tonight,” Jennifer declared.

Lucas Holliday

I questioned Jennifer’s decision to bring back this goofy dude (why not the very deserving Ignatious Carmouche or Meagan McNeal?), and I certainly thought she’d been hit in the head with one of her own airborne shoes when she decided to give him “The Beautiful Ones,” quite possibly the toughest and sexiest song in the Prince catalog. Sure, Bilal crushed this Purple Rain showstopper on the 2016 BET Awards, but really no one wants to see Lucas roll around on the stage floor in an open shirt.

That being said, I was stunned that Lucas pulled this off. He hadn’t completely ditched his cheesy lounge-lizard tendencies, which I believe are deep down in his DNA, but he worked that vocal, sang so high it sounded like his privates were caught in a vise (that’s a compliment), and even had a little bit of swagger in his Hush Puppies-shod step.

Adam admitted that he “got a little uncomfortable” when Lucas writhed on the floor, although Lucas thankfully didn’t take things to a Bilal level. Blake was more amused, raving, “I don’t even know what the hell happened just now; all I know is I want to see it again and again and again. … That might be my all-time favorite thing that ever happened on this show!” And a proud Jennifer proclaimed, “That’s how you come back.”

Apparently that isn’t how you come back, actually, because Jennifer shipped Lucas home just minutes later. Bur for the first time this season, I actually took Lucas seriously. So at least he left the show with some dignity.

Shi’Ann Jones

Jennifer selected Ariana Grande’s “Tattooed Heart,” because she wanted Shy-Ann (see what I did there?) to “come out of her shell.” Shi’Ann, who at 15 is this season’s youngest contestant, delivered a solid vocal and hit all the right Ariana power notes, but this was still a hesitant and amateurish performance. She didn’t have the others’ stage presence — not even Lucas’s. I really think she should have waited to try out in Season 14 or 15.

The coaches, however, were all impressed. Blake even said the “incredibly special” Shi’Ann was his “favorite artist on anybody else’s team.” And once again, Jennifer showed her soft spot for Shi’Ann, gushing, “When you have such a natural, pure talent that’s just undeniable, you can’t really deny it.” (Yes, Jennifer, that is what “undeniable” means.)

Chris Weaver

Chris was a standout in the Blinds with “Try a Little Tenderness,” which might be why Jennifer gave him the Motown standard “California Soul” this week. But the impact just wasn’t the same. Unlike “Tenderness,” this midtempo, midrange song didn’t give Chris’s massive voice any place to go, and for the first time this season, he seemed stuffy and old-fashioned. Chris is so much hipper than this! If only Chris had gotten to do “The Beautiful Ones” instead! I wonder if Jennifer deliberately hindered Chris’s chances in order to open the lane for her similar R&B contestant, Davon.

“One thing I don’t think that we’ve yet seen from you is a softer Chris Weaver. It seems like it’s full-on power, and that’s something just to think about,” cautioned Blake. “You have an undeniable presence … but I feel you have not tapped into yet,” said Jennifer. To quote that other talent show J.Hud used to be on, this sounded like a no, dawg.

Noah Mac

Noah could very well be the Hunter Plake of Season 13. He creepy-cool cover of Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” was so ethereal and intriguing — sexy, even, although I hesitate to say that about a singer who’s only 17. Noah simply telegraphs much older; he’s definitely not Bieber/boy band material. Noah’s lower notes in the verses were a bit of a struggle, but he powered through, and when he got to that fiery chorus, he roared. He deserved to have all the shoes tossed his way.

“Team J.Hud, you got yourself a finalist for sure,” said Miley Cyrus, who’d also inappropriately shouted, “He’s so hot!” during Noah’s performance. “You had the only real, true breakout. It’s a long competition, but you just took the lead, so you’re the frontrunner right now,” said Adam. “The life that you brought to that song was dramatic. It was powerful. It had mad presence. It moved the room. You are a star!” said Jennifer.

So, if I’d I had been in Jennifer’s frequently tossed shoes, I would’ve gone with Davon, Noah, and Hannah. Well, two out of three ain’t bad, I suppose. Instead of Hannah, Jennifer puzzlingly picked her not-ready-for-primetime mini-me, Shi’Ann, explaining, “She knows she has a talent, but she doesn’t know the power that it holds. With work and more time, I think she could come out here and eventually blow everybody away.” Um, maybe no one told Jennifer that the live shows are only five weeks long this season. I don’t think that’s enough time for Shi’Ann to catch up with her castmates. Hannah was ready right now.

TEAM BLAKE 

Red Marlow

Vern Gosdin’s “Chiseled in Stone” wasn’t the most mainstream country choice, but that’s why it was perfect for ol’ Red. Blake loves his old-school “real country” singers, and there’s no denying that Red is the real deal. The man is so country, he probably bleeds BBQ sauce. “Chiseled” was another acoustic ballad picked to showcase this class clown’s serious, softer side, and while it wasn’t as effective as last week’s tender Craig Campbell cover, it was solid.

“You have such strong presence. When you walk into the room, we can’t help but to know Red is there,” Jennifer said with a smile. “I really feel like you have such a great chance of winning this show. Just how classic you are is something that’s really missing right now, in all genres,” said Miley. “You tapped into truth and trust. I believe you when you sing, and that to me is something that is missing too much right now,” said Adam.

Chloe Kohanski

“Time After Time” is such a weeper — I break into convulsive sobs just thinking of the music video’s final scene, with Cyndi Lauper riding off into the sunset, her tears streaking a train window. I knew Chloe, who brought such raw emotion to “Landslide” in the Knockouts, would be magnificent on it. Then she did her own indie-rock arrangement, dedicated her performance to “Cyndi and females who dominate the industry,” and showed up onstage with Christmas-tinsel glitter eyeliner … and I was really sad the voting lines weren’t open yet. Her growly, gravelly voice had me feeling every word, every syllable, and she didn’t even have to sing at shouty full volume like Davon, Hannah, Lucas, or Chris to make an impact. I freakin’ love this girl. She will get all my votes next week. (Sorry for yet another spoiler, but, yes, Chloe made it through.)

“She reminds me of so many, like, different stars — Madonna, Gwen, Miley — yet you’re your own thing. I’m a fan,” said Jennifer. “You just needed that moment to stand on your own in your own light, and I loved it. You’re a punk-rock queen,” raved Miley. “Dang it, Chloe — you’re really good,” Blake said with a grin.

Natalie Stovall

“I brought Natalie back because she hasn’t had a chance to really showcase what I think she can potentially do when it comes to a performance,” Blake explained. So Natalie, a Nashville veteran and road warrior, whipped out her fiddle on Garth Brooks’s “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and let it rip. I do think her focus on the fiddling compromised her vocals in parts, but it did make her stand out, and she was a vivacious entertainer, very spunky and sassy. The Dixie chick clearly has experience working a crowd.

“You are such a fun performer to watch, and I’m glad that you focused just as much on your vocals as you did your playing, because I think you had a nice balance,” said Miley. “That is the Blake-iest performance. And just the sheer bliss that you’re experiencing as you’re doing it was really cool and infectious,” said Adam. “You just reassured me that you were the right comeback artist,” said Blake — before, of course, he sent Natalie home again.

Esera Tuaolo

Oh, dear. Esera did yet another sappy adult-contemporary/American Idol Season 2 ballad, the Diane Warren-penned Trisha Yearwood/LeAnn Rimes hit “How Do I Live.” (Did NBC cut the music licensing budget this season or something?) Coming off of the performances by Noah, Chloe, and even Natalie, this felt super-dated and downright uncool. Esera’s vocals were also noticeably weaker than his opponents’, and that screechy cat-in-season high note at the end was just dreadful.

“I’m not gonna lie — at the beginning, it was slightly pitchy, and then later, when you gripped it, you gripped it, but you still brought it home, so I can’t be mad at that,” said Jennifer. (Sure you can, Jen — I was mad!) “The issues that I did hear were based on what I think is just a little bit of nervousness. … I think if you can kind of get control of that, your vocal performance itself will be a little bit stronger,” assured an uncharacteristically un-shady Adam. Mused Blake: “Esera is that guy that he’s such an incredible singer, but he hasn’t mastered the technique yet, and so I’ve got a lot of soul-searching to do with moving forward with this guy.” That’s gonna be another no, dawg.

Mitchell Lee

Mitchell may be a good-looking fellow, but damn, his smile is so distracting! He mugs and grins his way through every performance while telegraphing no actual emotion. There was no connection here; Mitchell didn’t seem like he was singing this song about anyone, or to anyone. Bryan Adams’s “Heaven,” as schmaltzy as it is, could be magical when done by a rock or gospel power-vocalist, but this wasn’t even schmaltzy — it was just generic. I would have preferred seeing even Lucas Holliday do this.

“I don’t know if this was my absolute favorite performance for you, Mitchell. I think I would’ve wanted to hear you in a different key, and it didn’t really settle until the very end,” said Jennifer. “That song is up there. We pushed you, I think, as far as we can push you key-wise. I thought it was a solid performance,” said a faint-praising Blake with a shrug.

Keisha Renee

Now here was a singer with the ability to connect! Keisha built a bridge to her audience with a gospel-inflected rendition of the Judds’ “Love Can Build a Bridge.” This was a tasteful and nuanced performance, gradually and naturally leading to a great climactic ending that took us all to country church. Before this, I wasn’t quite believing that this former Nicki Minaj backup singer could really go country — but now I think she could even steal a few votes away from Red Marlow himself.

“Sweetheart, you are the bridge of gospel and country all together,” said Jennifer. “I have never heard a version of that song anything like that. It’s never happened. As dumb as Blake is in most ways, I’m not sure he’s dumb enough to let you go,” said Adam. Blake concurred, showing his smarts by saying, “This is what I envisioned back in the Blind Auditions — you bringing these kind of moments to this show. That song is iconic in country music, and you took it to another level.”

I would have gone with Keisha, Chloe, and Natalie, but instead Blake picked Keisha, Chloe, and Red. To quote J.Hud, I can’t be mad at that. I understand Blake’s choices, and as long as my girl Chloe is in the mix, I am pleased.

Come back Tuesday, when Team Adam’s contestants head to the stage. See you then!

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