The Voice 2/23 Recap: Welcome Back

Even though it seems like the last season of The Voice just ended (well it was just a little over two months ago), we are back again with another new season of the hit singing competition show. This season sees the exit of Gwen Stefani, and the return of original Voice judge Christina Aguilera. I am a fan of the show for sure, but I tend to be a bit on the skeptical side when it comes to its “star-making” prowess. None of the winners has exactly set the music world on fire, but yet more and more seasons keep appearing on screen; and NBC, seeing a hit on its hands, has no reservations when it comes to bringing it on as much as it possibly can. Even though the show does more for the coaches than it does for its contestants and winners, the hook that a new star can be found hasn’t grown stale yet.

Last night’s show was the opening of the blind auditions. Eleven performers were showcased (but only ten with the now expected backstories). Eight were chosen for teams, while three did not get any chairs to turn. In performance order, this is how I think it went down:

Sarah Potenza from Nashville led off the night with a strong performance of “Stay With Me” by the Faces. She has a very powerful voice, and she belted the song for all its worth. She deservedly was selected, as all four chairs turned. While she showed great control with those powerful notes, I wonder will she have the range and depth to be a bit more subtle when the song calls for it. Still, a great performance for tonight. She chose to join Blake Shelton’s team.

Lowell Oakley came up next, and described himself as a “new R&B soul singer mixed with an old jazz type crooner”. Well, during his rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (written by Duke Ellington, performed by many), I heard more of the crooner than the new R&B soul singer (though I’m not even sure who that describes these days: R. Kelly? Chris Brown? Trey Songz? Aloe Blacc? Luke James?). He was smooth, and had to decide between Adam Levine and Pharrell Williams for a coach. Surprisingly, he chose Pharrell. My worry with him though is that the style he chose to display often has problems on a show like this. I wonder if he can get good results if/when the coach tries to modernize his sound.

Artist number three was Rod Taylor, who sang Luke James’ “I Want You” (and during my Facebook updates I totally missed on the singer of the song-not sure how when I have James’ album and have heard the song many times). His performance, like James’ vocal had plenty of high notes. But because he didn’t have the advantage of singing the whole song, it made his performance sound like nothing but high notes. I didn’t really like this performance all that much, but then that may be why I’m sitting on the sofa writing this recap and not on stage making judgment calls…because Mr. Taylor got three chairs to turn. Aguilera won him over and Taylor became her first artist of the season.

Following Taylor was Ivonna Acero who performed Colbie Caillat’s “Try”. Ms. Acero noted in her backstory that she had never sung outside of school before…and it showed. She was very nervous. The song was a little wobbly and the vocals just were not there. Unfortunately, she was the first artist to not go through to the next round, Perhaps with another year of work, she can come back and do better; she is not without talent, but she did not sound ready.

Following Ms. Acero to the stage was Cody Wickline, a kid from West Virginia who had accomplished a lot of family firsts: first to go to college, first to fly on an airplane…and first to be selected for The Voice. Singing George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, Wickline showed off a voice that was well-suited for an old country classic. I mean, the tune was right in his wheelhouse, sounding nothing like today’s country artists at all. Of course, this set up the first “duh!” moment of the season, when after his four-chair turn he chose to join Team Blake. Shelton may not get all the country artists, but he certainly gets most of them.

My home state was represented by the next artist on deck, 16-year-old Treeva Gibson from Frederick. Her backstory of her parents being deaf and she herself suffering some hearing loss was sure to move many watching the show. Treeva performed Young & Beautiful by Lana Del Rey, and proved she has the pipes for the competition, even if they aren’t completely under her control. She did a good job with the song, though a part of the middle was a little pitchy. Nevertheless, she got two chairs to turn and had to choose between Aguilera and Shelton. She signed for her parents that she was going with Christina, which was a sweet moment. Yes, I am a softy. Yay, for Maryland!

In what should have been seen as a setup, but came off a something of a surprise, Mason Henderson literally walked on stage and sang “Riptide” by Vance Joy. The setup was that the backstory was missing…he was introduced and then he started singing. Unfortunately, the coaches found him a little too intense and did not turn for him. I didn’t think he was bad, but I understand the coaches reasoning: there was only one mode to his singing and rather than ramping down to show some subtlety, he ratcheted up the intensity.

Meghan Linsey was next, and her backstory sets her up as a ringer. She was one half the the country duo Steel Magnolia, who had some success a few years back with a top 5 country hit. They also opened for Blake Shelton on tour before the group broke up. Now she comes back to the show to try and reinvent herself as a soul singer. To that end, she sings “Love Hurts” by Nazareth. There is obvious talent to spare and she easily sails through, joining Team Pharrell. This opened a mini-discussion on my Facebook feed as to whether or not someone who has had previous success should be allowed to compete on the show. Those who commented on my status update felt that she shouldn’t be a contestant. I think it will be interesting…if only because at least in my mind, she will have the most pressure to succeed, having already tasted success in music before.

Stepping to the microphone next was Joshua Davis, who performed Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” For me, this was one of the best performances of the night. He came on stage with a guitar-he should have left it backstage. He didn’t need it, he was that good. A controlled, measured performance that radiated with confidence. Surprisingly, he chose to be on Blake’s team. Blake mentioned earlier in the show he wanted to have a variety of artists on his team this season; so far he’s managed to do just that. A rock singer in Sarah Potenza, his country singer in Cody Wickline, and a bluesy-type with Davis.

Bryce Sherlow was the next artist to perform, and when I heard that she sang in an a cappella group, I figured she would be a shoo-in to be chosen. I figure that if you can sing in an a cappella group, or sing a cappella period, you can’t really hide if you don’t have the chops. Sadly, Ms. Sherlow’s performance of Echosmith’s “Cool Kids” left quite a bit to be desired. Her voice was all over the place and it just never settled into a stable groove. I also think the song choice did her no favors whatsoever. Needless to say, there were no chairs turned for her, which was a surprise to me based on my a cappella theory, but not on her performance.

The final and best performance of the night belonged to 15-year-old Sawyer Fredericks. An upstate New York farm boy, he came out with his guitar and sang “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow,” an old folk standard. He hit it out of the park. No false notes, and I didn’t hear any nerves despite his youth (which I’m sure will be hammered down our throats for as long as he lasts in the competition). Of course he was a four-chair turn, and it seemed he was destined to become Adam’s first artist of the night. But in yet another surprise twist, Fredericks chose Pharrell, giving him three artists for the night. The kid may hang around a while, he’s that good; but I hope he doesn’t get hamstrung by some of his coach’s unique song choices for his artists in the later rounds.

So, after what was not quite a knockout first night of blind auditions, Adam Levine took a goose egg-he did not get a single artist for his team. Christina grabbed two: Rob Taylor and Treeva Gibson. Pharrell and Blake each ended the night with three: Williams with Lowell Oakley, Meghan Linsey and Sawyer Fredericks; and Shelton with Sarah Potenza, Cody Wickline and Joshua Davis.

Tune in tomorrow for more fun and frivolity, as The Voice goes into night number two of the blind auditions.

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