Well, would you look at that—we’ve got a team of veterans on our hands in season 8 of The Voice. And yet, they’re still keeping things fresh with a new combination of judges. At this point, the rotating panel of judges on The Voice is practically a Guess Who? board, with different faces popping up every time you reset the game. “Is he quirky? Does he give sage advice? Do you wish you could carry him around in your shirt pocket for quick encouragements throughout the day?” Pharrell is here! “Is she blond? Are you kind of intimidated by her? Is she wearing something that you’re a little confused by?” Okay, that could be Gwen, Shakira, or Christina, but this season it’s Christina, and with the addition of the two old men who never leave the rocking chairs outside The Voice general store—they couldn’t do it without Adam and Blake, of course—a whole new team of Av(ibrato)engers has assembled with a fresh rhythm for battling it out over talent.
And the same can be said for tonight’s crop of record contract hopefuls as is true of the judges: The seasoned and the novice gathered together to give us a pretty captivating and eclectic show tonight. Even the acts that didn’t make it through had spark, with an impromptu performance of “Happy” serving as both a rejuvenation and and instructional guide for Bryce Sherlow after she was unable to turn a chair. The best thing about The Voice is that it puts very few limitations on its auditionees, offering the best of amateurs and traveled tour veterans, alike. Of course, the worst thing that can be said about The Voice is that it doesn’t exactly crank out stars. That’s not to say its winners aren’t out there doing things and making music, especially in the country music world—I have “My Baby Has a Smile on Her Face” in my head at this very moment—but Mark Burnett and team are still waiting for one of them to really catch on, winner or no. And in its season, the pressure is kind of on.
Luckily, even among the standard “beaten-down industry veteran” and “maybe prodigy, maybe just twee” prototypes, there were two, maybe three chair-turners tonight that might just have that spark for one of these coaches to ignite the show has been waiting for. What say you…
SARAH POTENZA, 34; “Stay with Me”
Sarah looks every bit the part of a Nashville veteran in her cool glasses and green leather jacket; and she performs like it, too. She uses her whole body to infuse power into “Stay with Me,” and even though the judges can’t see her whole performance, they all turn their chairs in time to catch her on her knees for the last verse, and Adam and Pharrell have made it all the way up to the stage by the time they’re finished pleading their cases. I don’t know how you could look Pharrell in the eyes and say no, but Sarah knew who she was going with from the moment her boots hit the stage: TEAM BLAKE.
LOWELL OAKLEY, 19; “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”
I will admit to you that crooning is not my personal brand—perhaps if Lowell had infused a little more of the R&B and soul that he mentioned into his vocals, his performance might have stood out more from the well-dressed crooning hopefuls who’ve come before him. But he’s certainly charismatic and Adam and Pharrell see the potential in his voice and style. Adam gives his typical “this is my world” sell, and it’s not bad, but there’s really no fighting Pharrell when he pulls out the big guns: “You’re not regular, you’re not the same—you’re other.” Can you even imagine his (inevitable) Oscars speech? TEAM PHARRELL
ROB TAYLOR, 22; “I Want You”
Rob gave up his acceptance to Berklee College of Music to take care of his mom, who is paralyzed in half of her body from a stroke, but he says he has no regrets because this moment makes up for everything. And he, indeed, has a moment. That was a lot of falsetto, and I agree with Pharrell that at times it teetered on elementary school hearing test; but it was also impressive, and the depth of his range surely holds yet unearthed depths. Christina, Pharrell, and Adam agree, but no one with more passion than Christina who immediately runs up for a hug and tells him in advance, “I have one star player right now and that’s you.” The other two don’t put up much of a fight after that because it was always going to be TEAM CHRISTINA.
CODY WICKLINE, 20; “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Cody is the real deal country, and not in that I’m-going-to-tell-you-about-it way, either. Adam turns his chair practically after the first country note, but to be fair, it’s a good one. The tune is so slow in the beginning that it’s a little difficult to get a handle on his pitch (at least through the TV), but as soon as Cody gives it an ounce of power, it’s clear he has a solid raw instrument in him, getting Blake in the bigger notes of the chorus, and Christina and Pharrell with the very last note. Adam goes hard for this one, calling Cody’s performance, “the best country music performance I’ve ever heard anyone perform on this show,” but from the moment Blake takes a more laid-back approach with this humble guy, telling Cody he heard more Merle Haggard in his George Jones cover, the other three are goners. TEAM BLAKE
TREEVA GIBSON, 16; “Young and Beautiful”
My roommate cruised through the living room during Treeva’s performance and declared it “gor-geous” without even knowing her compelling backstory: Both of Treeva’s parents are deaf and three years ago she lost the hearing in her mid-tone range, so when she listens to music, she can mostly hear the instrumentals, rather than the vocals. That’s clear in her smooth delivery and, as Blake says, her voice kind of draped over the band in a way that can’t be taught. She turned everyone’s chair but Adam’s—all the judges seem to be a little perplexed by her voice, but aware that means there’s a lot of room to explore and she picks the coach who tells her they can work together to perfect those flaws: TEAM CHRISTINA.
MEGHAN LINSEY, 28; “Love Hurts”
I knew I recognized Meghan as soon as her floral jumpsuit hit the screen, and though I couldn’t have specifically placed her in Steel Magnolia, the duo she was in with her boyfriend, I definitely remember their hit, “Keep On Lovin’ You” and that they won CMT’s terribly named Can You Duet? Singing reality show knowledge, I have. And powerhouse vocals, Meghan has. She says before hitting the stage that her real roots are in soul music, and she brings that to her soulful arrangement of “Love Hurts,” that turns Adam, Christina, and Pharrell’s chairs at the very last moment. I don’t know what kind of game they were playing because once their chairs are turned, they’re all desperate to get her on their team. Blake—who Meghan toured with 10 years ago—says she has one of the best voices around, but what he heard tonight was better suited for one of the other coaches. The other two give it a valiant effort, but Pharrell tells Meghan he heard her soul in that performance and tops it off with, “I would love to just garnish you with song selections.” Where does he come up with this stuff? TEAM PHARRELL
JOSHUA DAVIS, 37; “I Shall Be Released”
Joshua is the resident Voice contestant who has made a career of being a touring musician, but has reached a turning point in needing to provide for his family (Carson introducing Josh Kaufman as “SAT Prep Tutor, Josh Kaufman will forever ring in my ears). He has the measured control and confidence of a veteran performer in his rendition of “I Shall Be Released,” and he can barely get the first line out before Adam and Blake are turning. It’s a soothing performance, and you can imagine swaying while you listen to it, and all of the judges recognize his rich tone and the textures of his voice. Adam makes the mistake of saying he wants Joshua because he’s got something Adam has been missing, which Blake latches onto and doesn’t let go of until he wins. Of course, the wisdom of experience would have led Joshua to Blake anyway: Go with the numbers. TEAM BLAKE
SAWYER FREDERICKS, 15; “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow”
What to say about Sawyer… the kid really might be a prodigy. And his hair is more beautiful at 15 than it has any right to be. Sawyer lives on an 88-acre farm in upstate New York, and he says he’ll be a farmer if he needs to be, but he’d prefer to be a musician. That doesn’t seem like it’ll be a problem. Adam, Christina, and Pharrell turn around on Sawyer’s very first a cappella line, because even though he’s barely even singing yet, his pitch and tone are that evident. I find myself making the same stank-face that Adam and Pharrell are making when something is so unexpected that you can’t quite wrap your head around it in real time even though you know you like it. Sawyer’s soulful sound seems like it could be transcendent in genre, and he’s sparing in going for the big notes, but that makes them all the more revelatory when he does. The judges go all in on fighting for Sawyer’s raw talent, and I really thought Adam was about to get his first team member of the night, but shy, humble Sawyer went for a soul connection instead, choosing the judge who had sat quietly until it was his turn to tell Sawyer that “this is [his] destiny.” TEAM PHARRELL
For those of you keeping score at home that means Adam didn’t get a single member on his team in the premiere. It’s a pretty standard play for The Voice producers to play that card through an entire episode, only to reveal that Adam got the golden four-chair turn that everyone wanted in the last 10 minutes. But not this time—maybe this season Pharrell will step into his own not just as an unearthly human, but as a coach. And we all know Adam’s hard-selling charms will start working eventually. But for Blake to really diversify his team like he wants to, he’ll have to stop turning for country singers, because it’s nearly impossible for them to resist teaming up with those Nashville connections, and he’s already three players deep. As for Christina… she was just a joyful presence to have around tonight. Look how far we’ve come!
What did you think of the season 8 premiere? Does The Voice already have more star potential in it than seasons passed this go-round? Which coach has your prediction to take it all this year? I know my top picks for the finals… do you?