Easy like Sunday evening: Lionel Richie dominates 'American Idol' episode

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Since American Idol’s return last week, center judge Katy Perry has been the show’s biggest headline-maker, whether it’s for kissing a boy who didn’t like it, suffering a wardrobe malfunction, or taking home a reported $25 million paycheck. But on Sunday, it was all about elder statesjudge Lionel Richie, from the moment the episode kicked off with the cast crooning a few bars of the Commodores’ “Easy.”

But the best Lionel moment came when singer-songwriter Jonny Brenns (more on him in a minute) confessed that his family didn’t know he was auditioning for Idol — so the judges called the Brennses to surprise them. Johnny’s mother didn’t believe it was Katy on the line, but when Lionel serenaded Mrs. Brenns by semi-reenacting the phone call scene from his “Hello” video, she said, “I know Lionel Richie’s voice, because I grew up in the ’80s!”

Yep, all that was missing was a clay bust of Lionel’s head. Someone in the ABC prop department needs to get on that, stat.

Lionel had some serious scenes as well, particularly when he gave sage vocal advice to another contestant, Johnny White (more on him in a minute too). By the time Katy and this season’s other new judge, Luke Bryan, donned curly Richie wigs and mustaches, I got a look at that image and seriously thought a judging panel of three Lionels wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie, and Katy Perry (Photo: ABC)
Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie, and Katy Perry (Photo: ABC)

Now, however, it’s time to review the Sunday contestants, including both above-mentioned Jo(h)nnys. Hello, are they what Idol is looking for? Let’s find out.

Crystal Alicea, 20: “Lay Me Down”
This bullying survivor fought back tears during her vulnerable, raw version of Sam Smith’s ballad, and Katy even dabbed her misty eyes a couple of times. I’m concerned Crystal may not be tough enough to handle a cutthroat TV competition, but she certainly has the talent. Katy called her a “little star.”

Kristyn Harris, 23: “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”
This yodeling cowgirl was a ton of fun, but I shared Lionel and Katy’s skepticism regarding whether this all-American girl is the right fit for American Idol. Lionel ultimately cast the deciding vote in Kristyn’s favor. It’ll be interesting to see how this sweetheart of the rodeo fares in Hollywood.

Jonny Brenns, 18: “Blue Jeans”
I did not expect such a pretty, pristine indie voice or delicate, sensitive original song to come out of this hulking, 6-foot-5 Viking’s mouth. Jonny could be the breakout WGWG of the season. Lionel better call Jonny’s mom again and congratulate her.

Ricky Manning, 22: “L.A. Is Lonely”
I barely remember this guy from The Voice Season 7, but I see why he didn’t make it past the top 20 on that show. His voice was so strained and shrill during this performance — why on earth would he write a song for himself in this high a key? The tune was also riddled with annoying anti-Los Angeles clichés. But Ricky gets props for singing the classic made-for-reality-TV line, “Nobody’s here to make friends.”

Effie Passero, 26: Untitled original song
With her punk rock pinup look, Effie was a standout before she even sang. And when she sang … whoa. The opera-trained blues-rock diva’s piano ballad was a monster. I will say, though, that Effie needs to learn to pick her moments. Sometimes she was on the verge of shouting (an unfortunately recurring theme on Sunday’s episode). But if she can get a grasp on her dynamics, she just might be the show’s “secret weapon,” as the judges claimed.

Johnny White, 18: “Man’s World”
Next to Johnny’s shouty performance, Effie actually sounded sedated. The dude was cranked to 11, maybe even 12, the entire time. “That was the whole show in one song,” Lionel joked, after which he gave Johnny some pointers about how to dial it back. Johnny better heed that advice if he wants to compete with this season’s more nuanced vocalists.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson, 18: “If It Hadn’t Been for Love”
This likable country crooner has such a recordable voice — a voice deep enough to make Scotty McCreery sound like Sanjaya Malakar. He was old-school, old-soul’d, and totally professional. I could already imagine him at the ACMs. “Your voice is well above your age,” an impressed Lionel told him.

Shannon O’Hara, 17: “Where We Were Young”
Shannon was so mature, she made Caleb seem like a contestant on American Juniors. She possessed the rich, textured voice of a woman, not a high school girl, and managed to pull off an Adele song — no easy feat for a singing show contestant of any age. I do wonder if Shannon has a big enough personality to stand out on this show, but Lionel thought she could be a “major threat.”

Amelia Hammer Harris, 26: “Gimme Shelter”
The daughter of ’50s songwriter Jack Hammer had a decidedly ’60s/’70s vibe, from her flared velvet trousers to her confident, passionate rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Her sultry vocals weren’t at a Merry Clayton level, but they were close. This is what is called a “package artist” in the biz. Katy called her “top 10 material.” Amelia is in my top 10, for sure.

Milo and Julian Sposato, 17: “Runaway Baby”
I don’t know if both Sposatos can go the distance on Idol — Julian has the slightly stronger voice of the two — but the twins should definitely start a superfunky family brass band with their guitar-playing dad. These baby Brunos-in-training gave one of the most exciting, vivacious performances of the season.

Les Greene, 27: “A Change Is Gonna Come”
This was another oversinging blowhard. Les was interesting and had a pleasant tone, but he was pushing himself so hard I feared he was going to blow out his vocal chords before the song was over. He has potential, however. Lionel said, “If I can just put a perm on [your voice], if I can calm it down a little bit, I think we might have something.”

Maddie Zahm, 19: “New Rules”
After hearing Maddie’s sympathetic backstory (she gained 100 pounds because of polycystic ovary syndrome; she works with special needs children; and she brought her best friend, who has Down syndrome, to the audition), I sure was hoping she could sing. Luckily, she surpassed my expectations, transforming Dua Lipa’s pop hit into a husky folk-rock confessional. Maddie had an easy, natural style that was the refreshing opposite of Effie, Johnny, and Les’s more-is-more approach.

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