The Knockouts offer a promising (and crazy talented) start to the last leg before Live Shows.

By Jodi Walker
March 24, 2015 at 05:08 PM EDT
Credit: Tyler Golden/NBC
S8 E9

I love the Knockouts. I like that it’s finally more about the competing artists than the coaches. I like that the coaches prove their worth by dolling out invaluable pro advice to amateur singers in the one-on-ones. I like that they bring in charming advisers like Nate Ruess from fun. to offer up even more advice and tie everything together. I like watching the contestants bop along in the background while their pal/enemy sings their guts out to try to beat them in a vocal smackdown. It all adds up to loving the Knockouts! And just putting it on the table after what was one hell of a Knockouts premiere: This might be one of the most talented groups the series has ever seen.

That’s evidenced by how close most of these pairings were; tonight was just an easy, at times emotional, totally talented ride through 13 great solo performances, a handful of which were magical. As the newly assembled teams flashed across the screen in their Avengers of Vibrato form, grinning around the coaches who were about to off half of them, I suddenly realized how young Pharrell’s team is. I’m both concerned—that he’s feeding off of their souls to keep his youthful looks and other-worldly wisdom—and riveted, as two of his 15-year-olds gave two of the most inspired performance of the evening.

And yet, over on Blake’s team, we got two of the most jaw-dropping vocals from two bona fide professional musicians just trying to get a break in the industry. And on Christina’steam, the final Knockout to top them all, combined both of those things for a glimpse into the future of the season. (For the record, Adam rolled out a good Knockout too, but they weren’t necessarily his standouts… yet.) As well as a few of the guys did, the first round of Knockouts was a total ladies night, and the feeling was certainly right. Can we talk about Koryn? Can we talk about Mia Z? We can—that’s why we’re here!

Clearly I’m feeling a little giddy with the potential, so we better get on with it before I quote any more Kool & The Gang…

TEAM CHRISTINA: Sonic, “A Woman’s Worth” vs. Ashley Morgan, “Heartbreaker”

In a Nutshell: Ashley is all about vocal precision and Sonic is all about stage presence; each needs what the other has.

The Performances: There’s something about being told over and over that a contestant needs to work on their stage presence that makes it difficult to evaluate if Ashley really doesn’t have enough stage presence, or if it just doesn’t match up to her nearly perfect voice. Sonic makes an excellent choice in this underutilized Alicia Keys song, using what Christina deemed her “sass face” to great effect, channeling the emotional connection and command of the stage that Ashley just couldn’t quite master.

Winner: Sonic because Christina likes that she takes risks even when that means some pitchiness.

TEAM BLAKE: Sarah Potenza, “Wasted Love” vs. Brian Johnson, “Nothing Ever Hurt Like You”

In a Nutshell: Blake says these two have so much power it wouldn’t be fair to team them up against anybody else.

The Performances: Brian said he chose his song because if he was to make a record right now he would want it to feel like James Morrison, and that shows with the effortlessness of his performance. But in this particular case, it’s hard to hold effortlessness up next to what Sarah did. I’ve only been about 80 percent in on Sarah’s full-attack song style so far, but tonight, as she let the unbelievable raw power and emotional grit in her voice build throughout Matt McAndrew’s almost-winning Voice original song (he was in the audience and popped into Sarah’s rehearsal to recommend the delicate start), she showed the full range of what she can really do, as well as the full effect of how she can make you feel.

Winner: Sarah because Blake repeatedly says there’s “absolutely no one else like her in the competition.”

But wait—STEAL!—Adam thinks the same can be said for Brian. He thinks Brian is the kind of guy who can really surprise people in the Live Shows.

TEAM ADAM: Nathan Hermida, “Leave Your Lover” vs. Clinton Washington, “Wanted”

In a Nutshell: Clinton’s confident power against Nathan’s smooth precision.

The Performances: I really loved the smooth soulfulness of Nathan’s original audition and was excited to see him show a new side of himself tonight with his effortless switches between full voice and falsetto. There’s something about his laidback groove that’s surprisingly emotionally effecting. And while Clinton showed the diversity of his voice and range by switching it up with a country song, I stand by generally avoiding Hunter Hayes’ songs in singing competitions. There are very few people who can sing that high and that powerfully live. He’ll always have that epic Battle, though.

Winner: Nathan for his newfound ability to open up to the audience.

NEXT: Pharrell is making moves… big moves, huge.

TEAM PHARRELL: Sawyer Fredericks, “Collide” vs. Mia Z, “Hold on, I’m Comin’” vs. Paul Pfau — “I Don’t Need No Doctor”

In a Nutshell: Well, in a nutshell, Anthony Riley had to leave the competition for personal reasons, and Pharrell is pitting teenagers Sawyer and Mia, and young person, Paul, against each other like a tiny little singing Hunger Games.

The Performances: And it’s great! All three of these artists have had solid performances through each round of auditions, and it doesn’t stop here. Mia Z is a cool, confident, jazz powerhouse in the body of a cool, confident teenage girl. She threw in some “whistle notes” for Blake and once again showed her impeccable ear for melody—I would say though, that sometimes her vocal is so melodic, it can be difficult to understand the words she’s singing. Paul knew that he was maybe using his guitar as a crutch, but he wanted to make sure to showcase his singer/songwriter vibe, and as Christina says, tonight, that unfortunately meant he left the door open for the other two to come in and take the vocal away from him. Because with a natural vocal talent like Sawyer’s floa

Winner(s): Mia and Sawyer, and their 30 years between them.

TEAM BLAKE: Meghan Linsey, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” vs. Travis Ewing, “I Don’t Want to Be”

In a Nutshell: “They’re both Steals, so sure, why not.” –logic, according to Blake Shelton, Voice king

The Performances: Travis has shown that he’s a dynamic artist in each new round of auditioning, and tonight he wanted to show passion and power. He sprayed the audience with the very real emotions of Gavin DeGraw’s song about a crossroads, unfortunately his normally solid vocal just wasn’t there. Meghan, on the other hand, was vocally perfect for nearly her entire song, but came most alive at the end of the most classic of Aretha Franklin’s songs when she started really having to push the top of her range, and suddenly she was a natural woman—raw, emotional, and with the right amount of desperation to win.

Winner: Meghan, who finally revealed the full extent of the soul artist she’s trying to be.

TEAM CHRISTINA: Kimberly Nichole, “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” vs. Koryn Hawthorne, “Try”

In a Nutshell: We knew it would be good, but we didn’t know it would be this good.

The Performances: Koryn was montaged just one short round ago, so headed into this Knockout as Adam later said, he was just hoping the teenager could keep up with Kimberly’s killer stage presence and vocal power. There’s something about a contestant like Kimberly who starts out perfect, stays perfect, and always does it in the perfect tutu-inspired outfit… it can be easy to get used to her always nailing it. I loved watching her rock out and sashay around the stage like she owned it, and for that moment she did. But then Koryn came out of nowhere singing a Pink song at full-Pink levels of power with grit, and fire, and passion; Christina gave her the great advice of not just trying to convey a struggle with the song, but to try to go beyond that and empower. And as Pharrell said, it was like she was pulling energy from the Earth as she walked around, empowering the audience, the competition, and herself.

Winner: But the winner is Kimberly! And she is a deserving winner. Surprises are good entertainment, but consistency is a rarity. Luckily for those of us looking for both…

Each coach has a STEAL, and Pharrell knows a soul connection when he feels it. Christina jumps around singing, “It’s a win-win, it’s a win!” And it really was.

Were you as impressed with Season 8’s Knockout premiere as I was? Which artists are you still looking forward to hearing from? Would you have used the Knockout Steals any differently tonight if you were lucky enough to sit atop one of the red thrones of NBC?

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The Voice - Season 14

The Voice

A rotating chair-full of judges search for the next great superstar singer on this NBC reality show.

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