Choosing from a list of 500 classics selected by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, some of the final four contestants rise to the occasion, while one takes what looks like a deliberate nosedive
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‘Idol’ recap: Hall of Fame

Jason Castro did the impossible not once, not twice, but three times up on the American Idol stage tonight. With his disappointing performances of ”I Shot the Sheriff” and ”Mr. Tambourine Man,” the gentle, dreadlocked troubadour from Rockwall, Texas, likely gave the Unsinkable Syesha Mercado a free pass into the final three, helped me begin to understand why 90 percent of the people I know are rooting for a David Cook-David Archuleta finale, and, perhaps worst of all, made me momentarily miss Luke Menard. (For those of you fortunate enough to have forgotten, he’s the dude who ”sang” ”Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” during the last week of semifinals and who gave a typically cheesy thumbs-up from his seat in the Idol audience tonight. Yeah, him.)

The sad part is, I’ve been rooting for Jason ever since he first appeared on my TV screen three months ago — without the smallest kernel of hype or hope, and with what was probably less than 30 seconds of prior airtime — to deliver a magical semifinal rendition of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ”Daydream.” But to suggest that Jason’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame night performances were akin to waving a pair of giant white flags would be giving him too much credit, as that would suggest he spent any energy at all fighting against the David-David finale that Idol‘s judges and producers so desperately crave.

Yeah, I know. A trip to the Idol finale would’ve locked Jason into a contract (not to mention a ”This Is My Cliché” first single) that he’d likely spend the next several years trying to overcome. And it’s somewhat understandable that after hearing Paula Abdul critique his ”September Morn” last week — prior to his actually taking the stage to sing it — the guy might be feeling a little disillusioned with American Idol.

But why make excuses? At this point in the competition, shouldn’t Jason’s time on the Idol stage be about something more than winning or losing or inspiring rabid voters to investigate the latest speed-dialing technology? And if the prospect of disappointing millions of deeply invested fans wasn’t enough motivation, then how about wanting to go down in history as one of Idol‘s great third-place finishers, alongside Elliott Yamin, Kimberley Locke, and Melinda Doolittle? (It’s not like the folks at 19 Entertainment spent any time writing those names with hearts and flowers on the fronts of their notebooks.) Or maybe thinking back on all the contestants who’ve been booted before you — Brooke White, Carly Smithson, Michael Johns, Chikezie, David Hernandez, even Kristy Lee Cook — who’d have likely given anything for a chance to perform two additional songs for an audience of some 25 million folks?

Instead, Jason gave a shoulder shrug of a performance on ”I Shot the Sheriff,” lazily strumming a few chords on his guitar while failing to infuse the Bob Marley track with the originality he brought to ”I Don’t Wanna Cry,” or the raw passion he delivered on ”Hallelujah.” The way Jason sort of backed away from the mike as he tossed off his last few notes broke my Idol-lovin’ heart. And while I’m not exactly sure why Simon declared that ”I Shot the Sheriff” is ”a song you do not touch” — Eric Clapton scored a huge hit with a completely different arrangement in 1974, after all — it certainly shouldn’t be handled with so little care.

NEXT: Words fail Jason

Just as disheartening, but for a completely different reason, was ”Mr. Tambourine Man,” which I actually thought might turn out to be Jason’s redemption song. Dressed in a very snazzy black shirt with gold and silver detailing, Jason started the number rather sweetly, until, of course, he completely forgot the last line of the chorus, which he turned into a mildly embarrassed ”uh-nuh-uh-uh-uh-uh.” At which point I just hung my head and groaned. I know Simon was going for a dig when he told Jason to pack his suitcase, but I can’t help feeling Jason had already finished the task four or five days ago. (Is it too late to go back and change my vote for ”Favorite Offbeat Contestant” in our new Idol Steel Cage” showdown?)

Jason’s flameout is good news, however, for the Artist Formerly Known as Cannon Fodder, Syesha Mercado, who I’d contend had her least successful showing tonight since Idol Gives Back week. To me, Syesha’s ”Proud Mary” wasn’t a bad imitation of Tina Turner, but it was more like a pale copy of Trenyce’s season 2 crowd-pleaser (right down to the ”come on, y’all!” shout-out). Granted, Syesha looked a-mah-zing in those slinky silver sequins — was it my imagination, or did she point to her breasts pre-commercial, right after Ryan declared she was about to ”let it all hang out”? — but aside from an Aretha cover, was there a more obvious choice on the Hall of Fame’s 500-strong song list? And if she really wanted to pull off Tina’s head-snap, hair-toss move, then she needed to commit to it mind, body, and soul.

No, I am not trying to reduce the typically unflappable model-actress-singer to tears (again). But if I’m being completely honest, though I was quite moved by Syesha’s mid-critique breakdown following her rendition of ”A Change Is Gonna Come,” the performance itself left me feeling ambivalent. I agreed with Randy: The arrangement was slightly off-putting, and Syesha (again in a major, major dress) kept falling out of step with the band and falling ever so slightly flat on the big notes. What’s more, although I appreciated Syesha’s efforts to learn about the song’s significance to the civil rights movement, was anyone else flummoxed by her need to reinterpret the lyrics as somehow reflecting on her Idol journey?

If Jason’s fans rally to his cause in record numbers, there’s a chance the second sentence of Paula’s rave — ”Welcome to the dream, Syesha. This is it for you” — could prove prescient. And as we all know, according to the Idol playbook, when a contestant says something like ”I just like to have fun,” it can usually be interpreted as ”I have made peace with the fact that I am going home soon.”

Then again, as Ryan frantically reminded us — without actually dangling the two Davids over a pit of rabid wolves — ”Anything can happen. Nobody is safe and nothing is guaranteed.” So maybe Rocker David or Teen Dream David is at risk of being booted Wednesday night. Yeah, right, and moments later, I’ll publicly renounce my love for Fantasia Barrino.

It’s true. David Cook should be sailing into final-three week with ease, although how Simon predicted this after the guy had only delivered one very middling number, and none of his competitors had yet taken the stage, is a mystery on the same plane as Paulagate. But who’s looking for consistency or common sense from the panel anymore? Rocker David himself admitted he could’ve done ”way more” with his paint-by-numbers cover of Duran Duran’s ”Hungry Like the Wolf” — after all, nobody who rides the Idol train gets to pull the emergency brake and ask, ”What if the coronation song is worse than ‘Do I Make You Proud’?”’ — and yet Paula got all Pavlov’s dogs and drooled that the performance left her ”with a big appetite.” (Inappropriate? Discuss!)

NEXT: David C. shows who he is

Lucky for David, tonight afforded each contestant a second chance, and he made good by donning a black-and-silver pinstripe blazer and offering up a sparse, slowed-down rendition of the Who’s ”Baba O’Riley” that not even the Idol Swaybots (TM) could ruin. Paula’s praise (”I’m humbled to sit here and watch your soul”) might’ve been one rock & roll too many, but there’s no denying that week in, week out, Rocker David manages to work the outside edge of the weekly theme and end up with something that would fit right in on the radio tomorrow.

And yet while I’m not sure I can say the same for David Archuleta, who I still find as exciting as a bowl of Grape-Nuts (no milk, fruit or sugar added), I’d be lying if I didn’t call the season 7 wonder teen the star of tonight’s show. Randy has been all too often wrong this season, but he was completely correct that Little David is clearly ”trying to win the whole thing” every time he takes the stage. And on technical merit alone, no one else on stage tonight could match his one-two punch of ”Stand by Me” and ”Love Me Tender.” The former performance featured more runs than a high-school track meet, but the bare-bones arrangement showcased a purity of tone that would match nicely with a high-quality poster print of the roof of the Sistine Chapel. (I will also admit to coveting the kid’s black V-neck with seagulls and black pinstripe pants.)

Little David’s second number was somewhat less convincing, as I’m not really sure anyone who could blandly dub ”Love Me Tender” as ”a fun song to sing” has got the required life experience to pull off a sweeping romantic ballad. And if I’m gonna quibble for a moment (and of course I’m gonna quibble), it’d be nice to hear David occasionally commit to the melody for a bar or two before he breaks out the giant syringe of melisma. Hey, he may not be my contestant of choice, but if he stays focused and keeps his fellow competitors on their toes for the next two weeks, then everybody wins.

Especially (I’m 99.9 percent sure) a guy named David.

What did you think of tonight’s performances? Do you think Jason wants off the show? If yes, will he get his wish? And how about Ryan’s pointed announcement that the judges would speak after every performance? Weigh in below, after checking out the first installment in our three-part Idolatry interview with Brooke White.

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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