Rising Star: Kesha, Ludacris and Brad Paisley

Rising Star: Kesha, Ludacris and Brad Paisley

ABC/Bob D'Amico

Say what you will about Rising Star and its ragtag team of genre-diverse judges, somebody is doing some work with these contestants behind the scenes. Whether that’s the “Groban-ator” throwing in some off-camera mentoring to make sure this gig doesn’t tarnish his credible musician resume forever, or maybe Kesha’s frequent hair/beard compliments really do boost onstage confidence, its obvious almost every Rising Star contestant has been markedly better in their sequel showcase than in their audition. Tonight, that made for at least two pleasantly surprising performances in the round of Duels where it was sure to be most difficult to remember who anybody was because their auditions were anywhere from three to six weeks ago, and the hair department keeps letting everybody use the same curling wand.

The cumulative talent level still seems like it will leave something to be desired out of the Top 13, but with the upward trend in performance level, Rising Star just might squeeze out one or two viable recording artists yet. Study up on your favorites, because next week the kids (and it is shaping up to be a young man’s game) are back to facing the Wall on their own…well, probably. We really have no idea what the rules will be. Why would we? We’re only holding these contestants’ livelihood in my very iPad!

Morgan Higgins, “Edge of Glory” vs. Maneepat Molloy, “Gravity” 

In the Judges Words: “The Battle of the Teenagers”

In Other Words: “The Battle for a Neutrogena Ad Campaign If This Singing Thing Doesn’t Work Out”

Morgan says her strength is that she’s more “raw” than Maneepat, but in the end, she’s really just a little less in control of her voice. Still, 45% was an unexpectedly low turnout for the self-professed “theater nerd.” More surprising, was the pureness in Maneepat’s middle register, and a seriously lengthy, if not totally perfect, high note. Brad voted "no" for Maneepat’s wavering pitch, but the other two judges (and America, it seems) agreed that her purer voice trumped Morgan’s limitless teen energy.

WINNER: Maneepat advances with Kesha and Luda’s votes, and 66% of votes overall; Morgan earned Brad and Kesha’s votes, and 45% overall

Shameia Crawford, “Cry Me a River” vs. Unselfish, “Payphone” 

In the Judges Words: “Battle of the West Coast Saves”

In Other Words: “Atlanta Dreamer(s) vs. Nominally Better Atlanta Dreamer, Singular”

Shameia’s first dance with the East Coast Rising Star audience was negatively influenced by an audition song that took too long to build momentum, and therefore, votes; but the background singer wasn’t playing around with her second (or technically, third) chance, nailing a soulful and rich performance of “Cry Me a River.” Unselfish also improved after their West Coast save, but their similarly high vocal ranges kept their harmonies from being dynamic, causing Kesha to give them the “blue arrow of encouragement.” Woof. I’m excited to hear Shameia apply her voice to all difference genres, and the judges were excited to use words like “unparalleled” and “unprecedented” from the thesauruses Josh Groban gave them.

WINNER: Shameia advances with all three judges, and 70% overall; Unselfish earned Kesha’s vote, and 33% overall 

Dana Williams, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” vs. Audrey Kate Geiger, “To Make You Feel My Love” 

In the Judges Words: “The Battle of the Most Unique Individuals on This Show”

In Other Words: “The Battle of Two Individuals Who Should Have Been Matched Other Weaker Singers So They Could Both Win Their Duels on This Show”

When pressed, Dana says she considers herself a combination of soul and folk—“soulk”—certainly a genre with room for her, and a title she lives up to in her performance of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” Unfortunately, she’s up against Audrey Kate, who’s coming off one of the best auditions of the season, starts this performance with an impressive a cappella verse, and just gets better as her own personal show built to its peak. Brad says Audrey Kate has the kind of voice he signed up to do the show for, Luda says she has the kind of voice he could listen to forever, and I say she has the kind of voice that might have Capitol Records unclenching their jaws (a little).

WINNER: Audrey advances with all three judges, and 88% overall; Dana earned Kesha and Luda’s votes, and 67% overall

Karen Hornsby, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” vs. Joshua Peavy, “Too Close”

In the Judges Words: “The Battle of Inspiration vs. Soul”

In Other Words: “The Battle They Were Probably Expecting to Go a Different Way”

Karen doesn’t want for energy, conviction, or her own personal style, but the judges may have been blinded by their emotions or a dramatic difference between live and at-home audio if they thought her cover of Aretha Franklin’s classic was vocally up to par. It started strong, but as Kesha said in the mentoring package, Karen needed to be able to harness her emotion this go-round, and unfortunately, her excitement continued to affect her vocals, as opposed to Joshua, who gave a powerful but controlled performance of the Luda-suggested “Too Close.” The judges are rooting for Karen to get the West Coast save, with Kesha going so far as to cast what is maybe her fourth no vote of the season for Joshua.

WINNER: Joshua advances with Brad and Luda’s votes, and 75% overall; Karen earned all three judges votes, and 67% overall

Next week, the Final 13 will have their chance to remind us who they are again, hopefully with no voting curveballs. Boding well for America’s ability to thoughtfully contribute to who will get that Capitol Records deal, the West Coast save went to Dana Williams, certainly the most talented second place finisher of the night. Note to singing shows of the past, present, and future: the judges might be here to make dreams come true, but we’re mostly in this for the singing.