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'American Idol': On the scene at the Top 11 performance night -- special appearance by Carrie Underwood!

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Idolscottmacintyre_lThere were barely any celebrities in the audience at last night’s American Idol Grand Ole Opry show — other than Randy Travis, in fact, I only counted Rich Sommer, i.e. the adorable bespectacled ad man in Mad Men. But that didn’t really matter, because pretty much the biggest current bold faced name at Fox was in the house: That would be Peter Rice, the newly announced head of the network (and the man behind Fox Searchlight‘s improbable top-grossing Oscar darlings Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and Slumdog Millionaire). When I entered the Idol stage at CBS Television City, Rice was up at the judges’ table, getting a tour of the Thunderdome by Fox’s head of reality TV, Mike Darnell, like a newly crowned sovereign overseeing the most valuable duchy in his kingdom. And then, dear readers, Mr. Rice took his seat across the aisle from me. I know insider scoop about Fox executives isn’t exactly top dollar info for most Idol fans, but you gotta understand, watching the show next to Rice was a bit like getting to sit next to (mixed metaphor alert!) a Roman emperor taking in his first gladiator brawl at the coliseum. Would Peterus Ricerus give a thumbs up to Adam Lambert, or would he perhaps throw his favor to the likes of Michael Sarver?

One thing’s at least for certain: Rice, like most of us Idol show regulars, didn’t seem to know quite what to make of Cory the Warm Up Comic. He’s definitely still devoted to the exact same warm-up routine as always, and he did inadvertently pull Lil Rounds’ father onto the stage and implore him to “shake that booty” for the Idol mob — one could almost expect Cory to throw his hands up and bellow, “Are you not entertained?!” But I really can’t argue with results: The guy knows how to whip up a crowd, even if he cannot help but point out the “sparkle glitter” in a fan’s sign by speaking with a swishy lisp. Speaking of signs, there were decidedly more of them this week, from the one announcing the creation of the not-quite-there-with-the-name “Giraud squad” to the one with the giant heart with a photo of Simon inside held up by two frat boy-ish dudes in plastic green St. Paddy’s Day bowler hats — which, to his credit, caused Simon to grin with genuine amusement when he first caught glimpse of it.

addCredit(“Michael Becker/American Idol/Getty Images”)

But before that bromantic moment could transpire, we first had to go through what is now apparently the weekly ritual of the judges emerging from the Idol Thunder-door and Ryan trying to walk down the Idol Thunder-stairs without looking like a featured player in Xanadu: The Musical. The judges delivered their show-opening nonsensical platitudes, the Idols came out and just as quickly left (Scott MacIntyre, pictured, escorted by Alexis Grace, apparently her permanent job now that Scott’s seeing-eye stud’s gone AWOL), the judges talked through the Grand Ole Opry introductory video package, and Emperor Rice clapped through the first half of Michael Sarver’s “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up),” before losing interest.

In the ad break, Simon, as he would for the first half the night, was out of his seat before the show was barely off the air, and the rest of the judges dutifully followed. When they all re-entered, Simon had a whole conversation with his ex Terri Seymour from across the room, even as the show began coming back from the break. Next up: Allison Iraheta’s “Blame It On Your Heart.” Her playfully professional stage presence reminded me of an if-she-could-actually-sing-live Miley Cyrus, but the band really began to overwhelm her softer vocal moments, a problem that plagued several other performances through the night. Perhaps why that’s Mr. Rice only intermittently tapped his toes through Allison’s song — on the other hand, Randy Travis was one of the first on his feet when the red headed spark plug was through.

Kris Allen and his tight pants took on “Make You Feel My Love” — and although I’m sure Slezak is all over this in his TV Watch, let me just point out that the song, rendered most recently by the exquisite Adele, was written by Bob Dylan; Garth Brooks just covered it. Perhaps Peter Rice knew this too, as he was escorted from his seat during the ad break and was subsequently absent for the next four contestants. (The royal court is already simply agog from wondering if Lil, Adam, Scott and Alexis will ever fully recover from the slight.) After entering what seemed like one of our more lengthy ad breaks, Cory snagged a dude named Evan, an avowed country music devotee and the aforementioned Simon fan with the plastic green chapeau, and asked him to name any of Randy Travis songs in exchange for an Idol branded iPod Touch. Standing not 15 feet from Randy Travis, Evan instead confessed that he was more of a “Toby Keith” country fan and did not know any of Travis work; in an instant, the crowd turned on him, and had Rice been in the audience, I daresay the poor chap would’ve been tossed to the lions. Cory next turned to a female Sway bot, who didn’t do much better, citing Travis’s “Forever and Ever, Amen” as “I’m Still Going to Love You Forever.” She got an Idol branded iPod Touch anyways.

After Lil Rounds finished “Independence Day,” the audience took to what felt to me the first truly spontaneous standing ovation of the night. (Following Simon’s “wedding singer” critique of “Little,” meanwhile, I began to wonder: Exactly how many weddings, hotel bars and karaoke clubs has Mr. Cowell been to in his life?) During the ad break, Adam Lambert sipped some water and then gamely chatted it up with Ryan, betraying not an ounce of anxiety that he was about to attempt one of the most boldly weird Idol performances in recent memory. Unlike last week’s “Black or White,” however, the audience reaction was clearly mixed — many of the stalwart country fans thought it blasphemy, but many other could be heard whispering conspiratorially, “I kinda liked it.” Me, I was just impressed that Adam managed to pull off those pants and not pop a plumbers crack on national television. As the subsequent ad break neared its end, Paula dashed back to her seat with only seconds to spare, and Simon playfully held onto her seat to keep her from sitting.

That impish mood, by the way, was what colored Simon and Paula’s “fight” over whether Scott MacIntyre should leave the piano behind. Ryan’s protestations of a “tense” set and his claim Simon and Paula stormed off afterward? Yeah, not so much. After it was over, Paula good-naturedly smacked Simon as he left the Thunderdome; the both of them were already all smiles. So now you know, and you can all finally rest easy.

Alexis sang “Jolene” and somehow made one of Dolly Parton’s most enjoyable songs a chore to listen to, continuing the contestants’ struggle with bridging the gulf between singing for the cameras and singing for the home audience — I was far more impressed with Alexis on TV than she came off inside the studio. At least she escaped the quiet judgment of Peter Rice, who finally returned to his seat in the ad break following Alexis’s song. And just in time, too: Rice was all about Danny Gokey asking Jesus to take the wheel, from his emphatic applause after every nugget of praise heaped on Gokey by the judges to the moment Rice, um, told me after the show that the only performance he could really remember was Gokey’s. So the bluesy Apple store and Cheesecake Factory enthusiast has that going for him, at least.

It was during this ad break that things did get a little tense: Kara kinda got up in Simon’s face, with Randy at her side, presumably to hash out their disagreement about whether Gokey should have kept things low-key in the first half of his song. (For the record, I side with Randy and Kara on this, exhibit A being Matt Giraud’s ability to imbue the first half of his song with a quiet-but-pointed soulfulness that Gokey lacked. But I digress.) (Oh, and Kara waited to step up to Simon until after Paula left the stage. Don’t know what that means, exactly, but there you go.) The, er, discussion between the judges was quickly dissipated, however, after Ryan popped up to the judges’ table for a quick hello. To be continued?

I was nervous for Anoop, meanwhile, yet another singer whose softer notes were rendered almost mute by the tsunami of sound cascading from the band’s Thunder-balcony, but I clearly needn’t have worried: ‘Noop Dawg even got Peter Rice to chuckle when he honestly answered that he wasn’t surprised by the judges’ wheelbarrow of acclaim for his rendition of “Always On My Mind.” Which is more than I can say for Rice’s reaction to Megan Joy Corkrey and her flu-ish “I Go Walking After Midnight”; the Fox network’s new potentate limply applauded as if by rote, and then, yes, scratched his ear. I don’t know how Ms. Joy is ever going to recover from that royal rebuff. Worse yet: Randy Travis had left the audience before she sang! (Why? See below.) Maybe Megan can regain her standing by strategically coughing again, since I don’t seem to recall her once hacking up a lung when the cameras weren’t on. (Hey, I just calls it like I sees it.)

Rice did seem like a true fan of Matt Giraud, by contrast, but he’s going to have to fight off People‘s Shawna Malcolm, who was in full swoon for Giraud from the get go after she realized he was in a full suit. Adam and Kris also looked genuinely happy for the former dueling pianist, racing right over to him as the performance recap played to share their approval. So perhaps Adam missed the moment when the audience broke not into a fit of screams, like after his “Black or White” clip flashed on the screen in last week’s Top 13 end-of-show montage, but instead launched into an unmistakable chorus of soft snickering.

And with that, the live show was over, but our evening still had one more act: Carrie Underwood and Randy Travis pre-taped their performance for tonight’s results show, sending the audience into a rapturous tizzy. Well, after waiting some 20 minutes while Ryan shot a promo looking all casual in just his tailored white dress shirt (homeboy is looking fit these days), and then Cory dragged people from the audience for some spontaneous musical performances on the catwalk behind the judges’ desk. Four audience members sang in total while we waited for Ryan to change into his Wednesday suit and the production to finish setting up the quite complicated stage set for Ms. Underwood and Mr. Travis — i.e. two stools, two Grand Ole Opry mic-stands, and a guitar for Travis that he barely played. Although the audience wannabe Idols were all surprisingly decent, the undeniable highlight was Lil Rounds’ big sister, Tiffany. Cory helped her step up to the catwalk, erroneously introduced her as “Tiff Rounds” (Rounds is Lil’s married name; Tiffany told me her last name is Cobure), and then out came a soaring gospel number called “Encourage Yourself,” so captivating that the band’s drummer quickly started keeping the beat behind her. Outsize vocals evidently run deep in that family. Also, I gotta give it up for the four people who sat in for Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon during the pre-tape; they each delivered a hilariously spot-on impersonation of their respective judge when Cory asked them to critique the wannabe Idols.

Finally, Ryan was changed, and it was time for Carrie and Randy to sing. Before they began, the former American Idol told Ryan the current Idol crop “did such a great job” singing her songs, and Travis confessed he felt out of his depth giving the Idol hopefuls advice, since he doesn’t possess much of any technical knowledge about music. “I don’t really know what I’m doing,” smiled Travis, “but I have fun doing it.” Then the two transformed Travis “I Told You So” into a plaintive, quite affecting duet, and, dagnabit, I had fun listening to it.

So, PopWatchers, did you buy that “feud” between Simon and Paula? Are you looking forward to Carrie Underwood and Randy Travis duet, or are you more of a Brad Paisley kind of country fan? And if you were suddenly handed the crown to the entire Fox network, what would your first edicts be?

More on ‘American Idol’
‘American Idol’: What should the Top 11 sing for Grand Ole Opry Night?
‘American Idol’ Power List: Who’s hot (and not) going into top 11 performance night?
‘American Idol’: On the scene at the Top 13 results show

‘American Idol’ recap: Two Birds, One Show
‘American Idol’: Why are you afraid of being gay? (When you already are.)
‘American Idol’: On the scene at the Top 13 performance show
‘American Idol’ recap: This Is Thriller Night!
‘American Idol’: Tracking the Top 13 Finalists with our Idol Tote Board
EW’s ‘Idol’ Headquarters