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'American Idol' Season 13 recap: new judge Harry Connick, Jr. and talent debut strong for Boston, Austin auditions

by Carolyn Menyes   Jan 15, 2014 22:50 PM EST

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After a tumultuous season 12, with infighting between judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey making bigger headlines than any of the singers on the show, American Idol made some big changes for its season 13 premiere on Jan. 15. Most notably, Jennifer Lopez has returned as a judge and Harry Connick, Jr. has joined the panel, chalking the show up for some refocusing on the music and, of course trying to beat that ooother talent show competition.

As it is wont to do, Idol began with a dramatic audition. A young woman, Muriel, stood in a room not much larger that a port-a-potty, as she focuses and hypes herself up. Equipped with an acoustic guitar as her weapon, she stuns through Bruno Mars' "Grenade," receives her criticism and eventually her ticket to Hollywood.

This. Is. American Idol. And it's back.

Unlike previous seasons, Idol largely focused on singers with raw talent in its first night of auditions, going for The Voice route instead of the cringey, hilarious audition route from its first editions. This was never more evident than with audition No. 2. Troy Durden, a wacky African-American man who professes a love of Jennifer Lopez and twerking was all set up to be a funny audition, but his classic take on "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" stunned the judges, and he eventually twerked and sang better than Miley could ever dream of before getting the coveted golden ticket.

The old bait and switch was used several times during Idol, reminding viewers to not always judge a book by a cover. Stephanie Petronelli, a Texas woman who came to Idol seemingly straight from cheerleading practice was wearing as little clothing as possible, but came out with a smokey, soulful rendition of Grace Potter's "If I Was From Paris." Was she the best singer of the night? No. And, it's highly unlikely Petronelli will make it past the first Hollywood round, but it was a pleasant enough surprise.

Similarly, Austin Percario came straight from the Justin Bieber School of Music. Rocking some milky brown eyes and a perfectly styled coif, the 17-year-old put a breathy spin on David Guetta and Sia's "Titanium." Urban described his style as "Bieber at 5 a.m." in what was the most accurate presentation of the night. But once again, a soulful spin wasn't what one could expect from this cutiepie.

Though the vast majority of auditions shown from Austin and Boston tonight featured strong "Yes" votes from the judges, even when they said "No," it wasn't without some struggle.

There was no better example of that than Taylor Hildak, who came into Austin with a strong, twangy rendition of Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats." Though she had the powerhouse vocals that made her seem like a Hollywood contender, she got big ol' "Nos" from Connick, Jr. and Urban, who thought she needed just a bit more work and that the bar needed to be raised for Hollywood as some point, so why not then?

Other nos, of course, came much more easily. James Earl was described as the coolest guy Connick Jr. had ever met, but cool didn't give the young man with a gold flecked jacket the talent of R. Kelly, Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross (his idols) and he got a pass.

American Idol wouldn't be American Idol without the occasional bizarre audition, courtesy of Sam Atherton. The buff guy claimed he had nothing more to learn about music, and gave a warbling performance with his acoustic guitar that quickly got three bold "Nos." After staring down Lopez, he stormed out of the room and told a confessional he was better than "Keith Urban, JLo and 'Tony' Connick" combined. Which... yeah. Was just not true.

Speaking of "Tony," how did he do as a first time judge? Though the show made a joke that half the contestants didn't know who he was, the classical crooner proved himself to be a perfect balance of Simon Cowell and a kinder, funnier judge. He was tough but fair, trying truly to find a person with raw singing talent and technical capabilities, whereas the less trained Lopez and Urban could be wowed with a fun vocal run or two. More importantly, Connick Jr. was fun to watch, constantly cracking jokes and wearing a massively handsome smile.

But, American Idol is less about the bad auditions and judges as it is about the talented singers. So, let's run through some of the evening's highlights:

Sam Woolf -- with an acoustic guitar in hand, this blonde boy blew through Ed Sheeran's "Lego House." Literally, giving it a rush-tempo performance. However, he shined through, getting an easy "yes" to Hollywood at the top of the show.

Kaitlyn Jackson -- This 15-year-old girl is one to watch out for. She strolled into the room with a confidence of a woman twice her age and worked through the tears to sing a song she wrote, "Another Angel," about her beloved grandfather who had a heart attack while she was performing at the county fair. She may be young, but this girl could be the 13th American Idol.

Shanon Wilson -- Bigger than a teddy bear, this former defensive lineman broke through any stereotypes and produced a falsetto so insane that it could easily cut through glass. Definitely another one to watch.

And so is American Idol season 13. The show will return tomorrow night (Jan. 16) with a second round of auditions.

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