"American Idol" trimmed itself down to a modest hour Thursday night for the first time this season to swing through Baton Rouge, La. -- the hometown, we were reminded, of the "dawg" himself, forever judge Randy Jackson.
That meant that interspersed with the auditions were lots of shots of leafy bogs and hungry reptiles, and oft-expressed speculation about whether the next Idol winner would be "born on the bayou." We also got to see Mariah Carey give Jackson a special spiff-up for the occasion (Who knew she was a beauty school dropout?) and were treated to an interesting jambalaya of contestants.
Among those making it through:
Miss Baton Rouge Megan Miller didn't let a leg injury requiring immediate surgery stop her from auditioning. She hobbled in on heels and crutches and wowed the judges with "Something's Got a Hold on Me," at one point using a crutch as a faux mic. An "undeniable superstar," Nicki Minaj said.
The self-described "socially awkward" Charlie Askew charmed the judges, too, with his clear voice and "seemingly dark, strange, but cool" persona, as Jackson described it. Mariah Carey identified with the way Askew used music as an escape. Keith Urban thought his voice was, like David Bowie's, "not of a gender." "I mean that in a really glowingly complimentary sort of way," he reassured the 17-year-old.
Maddie Assel, whose grandmother had "nominated" her, had found out only the previous night (at New Orleans' famous Café du Monde) that she'd won an audience with the judges (hope she didn't eat too many beignets), but she nailed the Beatles' "Oh! Darling" anyway. Despite the peculiar roster of the influences she claimed – Beyonce, Adele and Haley Reinhart – the judges felt she had her own style and sent her through. After she delivered the news to her family, her delightfully wacky grandma said she wanted to "kidnap" Ryan Seacrest and take him home with her. Oh, grandma!
Also inspired by a grandparent: Paul Jolley, who wanted to "give back" to the world, as had his grandpa, who'd recently died. His take on Rascal Flatts' "I Won't Let Go" moved Minaj to compliment the texture and color in Jolley's voice, as well as his "vibe" and the "sparkle" in his eye.
And did anyone really think handsome Dr. Calvin Peters, who helps veterans with physical rehabilitation and said he's known as "the singing doctor," wouldn't make it through? He was so excited with the four yeses his Maxwell song earned him he couldn't wait to show the doctors and patients at the hospital his golden ticket, noting that they'd think it was "sick." Pretty sure the pun was not intended.
If dishy doctors aren't your speed, the Baton Rouge auditions also brought us a fetching fireman, Dustin Watts. Even before Watts sang Garth Brooks' "She's Every Woman," Minaj was coyly inquiring whether he had a girlfriend. Afterward, she told him he looked like a country star and hollered after him, "You save lives every day. We love you, fireman!"
But the one who stole everyone's heart was 19-year-old Hurricane Katrina survivor Burnell Taylor. The judges looked skeptical when he announced he'd be singing "I'm Here" from "The Color Purple," but then everyone but Minaj gave him a standing ovation. Carey was moved to tears. Minaj said Taylor was "what we came for" and that he had "that thing that gives everybody chills and goose bumps." Urban called Taylor's voice "killer" and told him, "Somewhere there's a spotlight right now waiting for you to walk into it."
Even Seacrest had flattering words for Taylor. "I think you just changed that panel," he said. Meaning, perhaps, no more fighting? Fingers crossed.