'American Idol' Recap: Gabby Barrett, Caleb Lee Hutchinson & Maddie Poppe Give Their Final Performances (Critic's Take)

Two-part finale? Final night of performances? It feels like we were just getting started. In my day, kids, American Idol aired on Fox beginning in January and ran through May. Imagine having a whole month and a half left of this thing? On second thought -- finale, you say? Awesome. Let’s get it rolling. I’ve got two-plus months of wine consumption to work off.

Sunday (May 20) night is packed with three performances from each of the Top 3, in addition to trips to Caleb Lee Hutchinson, Gabby Barrett and Maddie Poppe’s respective hometowns. We’re back to overnight voting for the first time in four weeks, and frequent mentor Bobby Bones has returned for a final round of advice-giving.

Seated between judges Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan is Katy Perry, now in a blond Marilyn Monroe wig. Drag will eventually become a beloved American pastime if she keeps putting in the work.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “Johnny Cash Heart”

How much weight has Caleb lost over this season of Idol, Bobby Bones asks? Eighty-five pounds, he answers. Sure, Jan.

Caleb’s first song of the night is his new single, “Johnny Cash Heart,” a tune, Ryan Seacrest informs us, that was written by Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts. It’s a pleasant enough mid-tempo country number that’s right in Caleb’s wheelhouse, but the poor guy has only had a week to learn the song well enough to sell it to us -- literally, it’s on iTunes -- and it shows.

Lionel reminds Caleb that he’s now part of the music business, while Katy tells him it was his weakest performance to date. Luke piles on by stating that Caleb looked more tightened up than he’s ever seen. Ouch. Someone’s Johnny Cash heart just broke, y’all.

Gabby Barrett, “Rivers Deep”

When Bobby Bones asks Gabby if she’s going to win, she cautiously replies that she’s capable of doing so. It’s a good answer, because I don’t think anyone saw the curveball of charming folk-pop songbird Maddie Poppe landing in the Top 3, smack in between Country Boy and Country Girl.

Gabby hits the stage to perform her single “Rivers Deep.” Missing is the energy of the audience singing along and reacting with a sense of familiarity to the music, but that’s what happens you’re not simply doing another Carrie Underwood cover for the crowd.

Luke says that the Gabby the judges have grown used to didn’t show up until the end of the song. Katy and Lionel inform the young hopeful that what often sounds good in the recording studio doesn’t always translate so hot on stage.

Maddie Poppe, “Going Going Gone”

“Issues” singer and fellow Iowa native Julia Michaels co-wrote Maddie’s single “Going Going Gone.” It’s easily the best of these so far, with Maddie smiling and swaying with confidence as she delivers the upbeat, folky anthem to the audience.

Katy tells Maddie that she landed one of the better singles, but she also warns that once the young singer leaves the American Idol nest, it’s up to her to keep the wings flapping. Feeling a bit protective, Bobby Bones tells Ryan Seacrest that the judges were a little harsh in their overall assessment of the contestants so far tonight.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”

Next, the finalists are allowed to perform what they deem to be their most memorable song from the season. Caleb looks far more comfortable as he once again serves up Keith Whitley’s 1988 country tearjerker “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” Nice way to bounce back, but tonight is starting to feel like it could just be Maddie’s to lose.

Gabby Barrett, “Little Red Wagon”

When Gabby stomped through this sassy Miranda Lambert jam weeks back, it felt more like an audacious spectacle than a solid vocal performance. And, hey -- that kind of stunt worked at that point in the season. Did we really need to sit through it a second time, though, girl? At least she busts out her sparkly Vegas boots for the occasion.

Maddie Poppe, “Don’t Ever Let Your Children Grow Up”

Wow. I’d forgotten about the cute original song “Don’t Ever Let Your Children Grow Up” that Maddie performed nearly two months back, during Hollywood Week. That’s right -- tonight Maddie opted for a song she wrote herself as her most memorable of this season, rather than selecting a cover from a bag of tricks. Finding herself in the Top 3 might have caught her by surprise, but Maddie is definitely cranking the heat up for her two competitors.

In keeping with that theme, former contestants from earlier in the season Harper Grace, Jonny Brenns, Michelle Sussett and Catie Turner pop by to do a medley of their respective original tunes “Yard Sale,” “Blue Jeans,” “I’m A Dreamer” and “21st Century Machine.” What, did an advertiser pull out and leave three minutes to fill?

Caleb Lee Hutchinson, “Folsom Prison Blues”

Ah, the rite of passage that is the Idol finalist heading back to their home town for a glory lap. Caleb jets to Dallas, Georgia for visits to his local radio station, his high school and his family’s house. It doesn’t get more all American than a boy reuniting with his dog.

Back in La La Land, Caleb hits the stage for the last time, where he gives a knockout performance of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Caleb Lee Hutchinson emulating his own idol, Johnny Cash, is what this show aims to be all about. It’s a nice comeback that manages to put Caleb in the running again.

Gabby Barrett, “Don’t Stop Believin’”

Gabby swings back to our mutual hometown of Pittsburgh, where, amidst all the fanfare, she breaks down and cries over the long journey to a singing career that she’s been on since the age of 11. Channeling that emotion, she belts out “Don’t Stop Believin’” on stage once back in Los Angeles to the best of her ability. You have to hand her credit for trying, but it takes a lot of skill to hit a bulk of those notes in this iconic rock standard.

In a surprising moment, former Journey frontman Steve Perry appears in the audience following Gabby’s performance to say it was the most amazing version of the song he’s ever heard. Now Steve, let’s not get carried away.

Maddie Poppe, “Landslide”

Back in Clarksville, Iowa, Maddie’s whole school sings “The Rainbow Connection” to her and I legit tear up for a moment. Maddie then goes in for the kill back in L.A. with Fleetwood Mac’s seminal acoustic ballad “Landslide.” It’s yet another gorgeous moment for her, and just like that, Maddie Poppe is three for three for the night. Even Katy pulls out her phone and announces that she’s voting for her.

Which of the three is your pick? Voting is open until 9 p.m. on Monday night, when ABC will finally wrap its inaugural season of American Idol with either Caleb, Gabby or Maddie being declared the winner.

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