The competition is heating up on “American Idol,” which narrowed its top 14 down to 11 on Sunday night.
Before taking the stage in front of judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richiecontestants got some much-needed mentoring from none other than Gabby Barrettthe country superstar who got her start on Season 16 of “Idol,” where she finished third.
And to raise the stakes even higher, this was the first episode of the season where all voting happened during the show, which aired live coast-to-coast — meaning fans only had two hours to cast their votes before host Ryan Seacrest revealed the top 11 at the end of the episode.
So who made the cut? And what pearls of wisdom did Gabby Barrett impart on the 14 singers hoping to follow in her cowboy boots? Here’s what went down.
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Jay Copeland kicked off the show with a rousing performance of “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars, which he dedicated to his mother. In his session with Barrett, the country artist advised him to not sing “too much” when he gets to a high note.
“That was amazing,” Richie told the 23-year-old medical receptionist from Salisbury, Maryland. “You’re actually showing up on the stage singing songs that you should be singing. This is who you are.”
Perry said Copeland “landed in a cool spot,” and Bryan said Barrett gave him great tips that helped him deliver a “great performance.”
But after landing in the bottom 10 last week, did Copeland redeem himself in the eyes of the voters?
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Huntergirl came, saw and conquered, delivering a seasoned country performance that had the judges calling her an old pro.
Singing “Baby Girl” by Sugarland, Huntergirl dedicated the song to her parents. “I just want my parents to know I see everything they’ve done for me,” she said.
Perry encouraged Huntergirl to keep taking “ownership on stage,” and Bryan called her performance “the best we’ve seen from you.”
“When you really dug in at the ending I was hoping for that the whole time,” he added. “Gabby was staring at her competition by the way.”
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The spirit was alive during Christian Guardian‘s powerful performance of Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” Barrett encouraged him to focus on the lyrics and pick certain moments to unleash his powerful voice and range.
The judges all agreed that the tip paid off big time.
Bryan said Guardino “took it to the next level” and encouraged him to keep following his instincts on stage.
“It was definitely spirited. It was evangelical. I could feel the spirit in the room on this Sunday,” Perry said. “This was an amazing one for you.”
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Dan Marshall confessed he was nervous performing in front of country superstar Barrett, who helped him find his connection to the audience and get out of his head.
The 24-year-old land surveyor sang “She’s Got It All” by kenny chesney.
“That’s how you do it,” exclaimed Richie. “Kenny Chesney — I love him — but that was your song tonight.”
Though Marshall had a “great song choice,” Perry encouraged him to “always strike a line of fun” while still staying professional.
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Leah Marlene had a dilemma going into her session with Barrett: Does she show off the moody side of herself with “Mad World” by Michael Andrews or her upbeat spirit with “Happy Together” by The Turtles?
After listening to both, Barrett told her to go with the latter—and the guidance paid off.
“In my opinion, the show has finally started,” Perry said. “You really feel like you’ve arrived.”
Bryan complimented Marlene on her growth.
“The beauty of this show and why it works year after year is watching what is happening to you right now,” he said.
Fritz Hager has been open in past episodes about his struggles with confidence while on “American Idol.”
But all doubts seemed to disappear during his performance of James Bay’s “Let it Go” which made Bryan forget he was at “Idol” and not a Hager concert.
“Fritz, you’re an artist, buddy,” he said. “That whole performance felt like I was at your show.”
Richie said Hager found “the absolute way to make us listen,” while Perry encouraged fans to vote for Hager.
“I can’t play favorites, but you can see it in my eyes, Fritz,” she said, before addressing viewers at home: “Your faves are not safe, and it’s only a small window. Please, we cannot protect him. Protect him!”
But did the fans come through for Hager?
Tristen Gressett came ready to deliver theatrics, with the song “Whataya Want from Me” by Season 8 runner-up Adam Lambert. But Barrett encouraged him to “make sure those big notes make sense.”
In addition to offering powerful vocals, Gressett worked the stage like a rock star.
“You added a little element we haven’t been talking about a lot. It’s called acting,” Richie said. “What I love is how you followed that camera.”
Perry said Gressett has “the coolest, weirdest, awesomest vibe,” while Bryan noted the contestant “came to play today.”
“You ended at the highest place you could end,” he added. “Great job.”
But that wasn’t all. After his performance, Gressett was brought to tears by a surprise video message from none other than Lambert.
“I want you to break a leg, sing from the heart and know that you are a star,” Lambert told the young contestant. “Enjoy yourself.”
Lady K planned to pay tribute to a past “Idol” winner: Fantasia Barrino, by singing her song “I Believe.”
But first, Lady K needed to find the confidence of an “Idol” winner, so Barrett gave her a pep talk and encouraged her to find a power stance to own her space on the stage.
“She is a lady, and I believe!” Perry exclaimed after the formerly homeless contestant’s performance. “The growth is just incredible.”
Bryan agreed on the improvement, adding that Lady K’s vocal choices are “never overdone.”
“From homeless to center stage to going to the next level, that was the best performance I’ve ever seen you do in your life,” Richie marveled.
Coming back from the bottom 10 last week, Allegra Miles fought to prove herself worthy to the voters with the hit Billie Eilish song “ocean eyes.”
Miles gave a dynamic performance, starting at the piano before getting up to show off her magical falsetto.
“That’s why we saved you right there,” Bryan said. Richie added that Miles “actually sucked us right into that wonderful space where we were watching you at every breath.”
Perry delivered a stern warning to viewers.
“You are incredibly talented, and I really hope America does not make the same mistake,” she said.
Ava Maybee shook things up with her rendition of Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times.”
“Harry Styles can be hard to sing,” Barrett warned. “He’s very creative and moves around and has a lot of energy.”
On top of that challenge, Maybee took a risk by re-arranging the song to begin with the chorus.
The risk paid off, though the judges encouraged Maybee not to overthink on stage.
“There’s no maybe about Ava,” Richie said, adding that “the second half (of the song) was on fire.”
Perry revealed that one of her friends who is a musical artist recently asked about Maybee. “Ava, people are talking about you,” she said, without naming her friend.
Mike Parker, a 27-year-old carpenter from Warrenton, Virginia, came to play, with the Luke Combs’ song “Hurricane.” Barrett advised the country crooner to keep his eyes more open while singing to help him connect emotionally with the audience.
Bryan called Parker “a fighter” while Perry said he “made that stage” his own.
“You killed it and what I’m loving the most: your storytelling,” said Richie.
Before her performance of Olivia Rodrigo’s “drivers license,” Emyrson Flora, 16, had a heart-to-heart with Barrett about getting out of her head and overcoming nerves.
Her subtle, emotional performance earned high praise from the judges — and a comparison to another young music superstar.
“I don’t know where you picked it up or how God put it in your DNA, but that’s an old, subtle cry in your voice,” Richie said. “You killed it.”
Perry said Flora worked the crowd like Billie Eilish does — with subtlety and feeling.
“She can have the whole room in the palm of her hand by being quiet,” Perry said.
Barrett wasted no time telling Noah Thompson to ditch his song and pick one he actually connected with, telling the country crooner, “You’ve just gotta get into the song and the lyrics more.”
The 20-year-old construction worker from Louisa, Kentucky ultimately landed on “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King — the right call, according to the judges.
“Gabby gave you a gift by changing that song because you actually felt that song,” Richie said. “Pick songs that you feel. Feeling is everything in this business.”
Perry said that her housekeeper Michelle is a fan, telling the judge she’s voting for Thompson.
Bryan commented that Thompson’s voice “is just so real and unique to you.”
Last but certainly not least, Nicolina took the stage for a moving performance of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” which she sang in tribute to her Nona who underwent chemotherapy.
Perry called the dazzling performance “angelic.”
“It was like watching an angel sing this beautiful song,” she continued. “What a tribute.”
Bryan marveled at the control Nicolina has over her voice.
“You step up there, and you truly look like you’ve been in this role for 30, 40 years, and it’s truly just a God-given talent,” he said.
“Your natural gift just comes out so pure, and you’re gifted beyond your years,” he said. “The sky is the limit and you can go a long, long way.”
And of course, Nicolina’s Nona, who didn’t know she’d be singing the song, was a mess of tears in the audience.
So who went home?
There were many fierce performances. But not everyone could make the Top 11.
In the end, host Ryan Seacrest revealed the results of the live vote: Allegra Miles, Ava Maybee and Dan Marshall would not be moving on in the competition.
“American Idol” returns Monday at 8 pm ET, with another live vote and elimination.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism