We've reached the end of "American Idol's" long and winding audition tour, making a final stop in St. Louis before the show heads back to Hollywood next week. Much was made of the fact that one of "Idol's" biggest success stories, Carrie Underwood, was discovered in St. Louis eight years ago -- and compared to some of the contestants we've seen on our journey so far, perhaps the producers really were saving the best for last.
I haven't been overly impressed with many of the auditionees this season, but the singers in St. Louis were generally cute, commercial and easy to listen to. If there's a winner hidden among the competitors we've seen on screen to date, Missouri might be the state to beat. The judges were certainly enthusiastic, with a few of the hopefuls earning a "wow" within 10 seconds of them opening their mouths to sing. And aside from misguided hotel worker Mark Ingram, who thought he could out-wonder Stevie Wonder, the hour was predominantly dedicated to those who had an actual shot at success.
1. Johnny Keyser
Twenty-two (the age of three of the stand-out acts from the episode) was apparently the magic number in St. Louis. The first was fresh-faced Johnny Keyser, who looked like he'd wandered in from a CW casting call. He made the risky decision to tackle Sam Cooke's "Change is Gonna Come," and his pure, soulful tone (not to mention the pretty face) immediately positioned him as a standout audition. He had a wonderful Gavin DeGraw vibe that pushed all the right buttons for me, stretching himself to some startling high notes and hypnotizing the judges with his melody. Every time it seemed like they might stop him to put him through, they made him continue until he reached the end of the song -- a rare feat this season. "You know you're gonna be a star, right?" Jennifer Lopez observed, before the trio finally bestowed a golden ticket and sent him to Hollywood.
2. Lauren Gray
Another impressive 22-year-old was bluesy Lauren, a daddy's girl who plays gigs with her father and helps out with the family wedding planning business. She took on Adele's "One and Only," and unlike most singers who attempt Adele, she actually acquitted herself well. She was undoubtedly a belter, with a huge stage presence and an intriguing rasp to her lower register. She added some great twists to the ends of her phrases, although Jennifer noted that her voice cracked on some of the high notes. Steven Tyler loved those breaks: "When you go up there and you're fearless like that, it's the sexiest thing on the planet," he assured her, seeming to offer a genuine critique instead of simply being lecherous. Lauren earned an easy three "yes" votes to progress to Hollywood.
3. Ethan Jones
Our third attractive 22-year-old was Ethan, who had dropped out of school to pursue music full-time; he used to be in a band with his dad before his father was admitted to rehab. He chose "I'll Be" by Edwin McCain (that much-maligned and overused "Idol" song) and did a nice job of it. His higher notes were stronger than his middle register, but there was an intriguing huskiness to his voice that made him interesting to listen to. Jennifer declared that she could envision him in a country music video as he sang, and Randy Jackson complimented him for not sounding anything like how he looked (gee, thanks?), before the judges gave him three yeses.
4. Rachelle Lamb
There's an emerging trend this season involving newly-single women (usually also moms) who were in an unfulfilling relationship with a guy who held them back from pursuing their musical dreams. Sweet country cowgirl Rachelle was one such contestant, and her take on Faith Hill's "Find Somebody New" was infused with passion and a great country twang. She was capable of belting the song out when called for, but also demonstrated a husky rasp on the low notes. She brought her adorable daughter Madison into the room with her, and managed to keep both her child and the judges engaged, dancing and goofing around as she sang. She's an accomplished vocalist -- I'm not sure she'll go all the way to the live shows, but Steven priased her sense of melody and Randy approved of her "pure tone," quickly awarding her a golden ticket.
5. Reis Kloeckener
Steven Tyler was blown away by mild-mannered Reis, a boy who was bullied at his public school after being transferred from a small, Lutheran establishment. He certainly had heart, though I'm not quite sure why Steven was so affected by his understated version of "Lean on Me." He had a sweet, raw quality and some enviable high notes, but I feel like he'll get swallowed up in the drama and stress of Hollywood Week. "That was so beautiful, you made me cry -- you made me tear up and get all crazy inside. I haven't heard anything like that," Steven gushed, before Reis was given three "yes" votes and a trip to California.
Who was your favorite audition of the night? Were you as baffled by the homage to "The Artist" as I was?
"American Idol" airs Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. EST on Fox.