American Idol top three finalist Kree Harrison returned to her hometown of Woodville last weekend for a string of Southeast Texas celebrations, including a parade, a run at the mechanical bull and a performance at the Tyler County Rodeo.
She ended the day with a free concert at Beaumont’s Ford Park Arena, one that, despite its 8,000 attendees, felt like a small town affair.
The Woodville mayor’s father arrived hours early to watch the local opening acts and chat with community members. Friends and families stopped to greet each other in the parking lot and aisles. Two neighbors in the bathroom line recalled the dinner hosted for Harrison the night before. And homemade signs were abound, including a Nicki Minaj-inspired one proudly clutched by an elderly woman in a wheelchair: “Let Kreedom sing.”
Harrison’s jammed Idol schedule left her with little time to spend with the doting crowd — 30 minutes at most — but much like her Idol performances, she packed her set with tangible sincerity.
Though it didn’t strike me until recently, Harrison’s ratio of personality to performance is reminiscent of Carrie Underwood herself.
“This is like an out of body experience for me,” she said before tearing through a soulful cover of The Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” and an impassioned “Up to the Mountain” by Patty Griffin. For a contestant who’s often derided for her lackluster stage presence, Harrison was a natural at working the crowd in between her blues-heavy performances.
She followed with solid renditions of “Don’t Play That Song” and “Evidence,” but the most gripping moment came from her delicate, tearful reprise of Carrie Underwood’s “See You Again,” a song she dedicated to her late parents. Though it didn’t strike me until recently, Harrison’s ratio of personality to performance is reminiscent of Underwood herself: Both have undeniable inner emotion that, frustratingly, doesn’t always translate on stage. When deeply personal songs bring that divide down, the result is magic.
Harrison composed herself long enough to accept a bouquet of flowers from Woodville Mayor Ben Bythewood and tell the audience she was “in it to win it” (for quoting the insufferable, I’ll have to forgive her). She promised to do her best to make Texas proud, and it felt real, like a genuine pledge to return the energy and not an adrenaline-fueled grab at the crown.
Breath of fresh air
Even with the cameras rolling, the very personal concert was a breath of fresh air in the midst of recent judges’ antics; it served as an important reminder of Idol at its drama-free finest, giving a richly talented young woman a platform to shine. It’s become increasingly difficult to remember this in Season 12, an era that’s chipped away at Idol’s competitive edge by shifting the focus from the contestants to the judges.
It’s for that reason alone that I’m slowly teetering off of Team Nicki, the most on-point judge since Simon Cowell scowled his way through the show four years ago. Along with the ever-graceful Keith Urban and his visceral musicality, Minaj has — believe it or not — brought intelligence back to the judging panel, the kind that understands where the industry and artistry meet. What a shame that it’s been clouded by ego matches with Mariah Carey, especially on a season that was designed (albeit clumsily) to return respect to female contestants.
I’m slowly teetering off of Team Nicki, the most on-point judge since Simon Cowell scowled his way through the show four years ago.
The rocky Idol panel stands in contrast to the playful chemistry of the judges on the irrefutable “it” show, The Voice, and coincides with a steep ratings slide that’s unavoidable after 11 years. But Idol’s brand –and really, its competitors’ brands—lives and dies by the success of its contestants, and the heir to Phillip Phillips has a lot to live up to. The Season 11 winner recently earned his second gold-selling single when “Gone, Gone, Gone” passed the 500,000-download mark, and his debut single “Home” went quadruple platinum earlier this year.
Fighting to follow in Phillips’ footsteps is the powerful female trio of Harrison (22), Candice Glover (23) and Angie Miller (19), who will compete for a spot in the finale tonight at 7 p.m. on Fox. Glover is a strikingly skillful singer, delivering show-stopping performances that would knock any of the current Top 40 artists off of their feet. Miller is a tailor-made pop-rock star whose piercing voice is most effective when she finds material –typically spiritual—with which she connects.
And Harrison is an authentic, nuanced singer who needs a boost of creativity to carry her part country, part blues, part soul voice over the finish line. It's not hard to understand why she's topped the votes in weeks when the judges thought she lacked momentum: Of the three remaining, she bears the closest resemblance to the type of unassuming, endearing contestant who’s won the show five years over.
We’ll see how it all plays out next week on the two-hour Season 12 finale. In the meantime, chime in with your comments, and tune into Fox 26 Thursday morning (7 a.m.) to catch me and Ruben Dominguez chat live about this week’s Idol performances and homecoming coverage.
Get more of Tara Seetharam's pop culture musings on her website www.taraseetharam.com and follow her on Twitter @TaraAshley