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Rodney HoRodney Ho

Recapping the final ‘American Idol’ debut with Atlanta, Denver auditions

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AMERICAN IDOL XV: Atlanta Auditions: AMERICAN IDOL will begin its 15th – and farewell – season with a special two-night, four-hour premiere event Wednesday, Jan. 6 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) and Thursday, Jan. 7 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. AMERICAN IDOL XV continues on Wednesdays (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) and Thursdays (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT). Pictured: Contestant JosiahSiska auditions in front of the judges at AMERICAN IDOL XV. © 2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Michael Becker / FOX.

AMERICAN IDOL XV: Atlanta Auditions: AMERICAN IDOL will begin its 15th – and farewell – season with a special two-night, four-hour premiere event Wednesday, Jan. 6 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) and Thursday, Jan. 7 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. AMERICAN IDOL XV continues on Wednesdays (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) and Thursdays (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT). Pictured: Contestant Josiah Siska from Dacula auditions in front of the judges at AMERICAN IDOL XV. © 2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Michael Becker / FOX.

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Welcome to the very final season debut recap for “American Idol.” I began blogging about this show in early 2005 so this is my 12th (and last ) time I’m greeting you guys for a new season. Taylor Swift may have her squad. You are my far cooler crew. #Idolsquadforever!

We will have far fewer recaps this year. Already, the results shows have been nixed. But the season appears to be five or six weeks shorter as well, ending in early April. Indeed, Fox today released the schedule and here’s info on the final week:

The three-night Grand Finale week kicks off on Tuesday, April 5 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT), with “AMERICAN IDOL: American Dream,” a one-hour retrospective episode, featuring Seacrest, current and former judges, contestants and the behind-the-scenes team sharing their IDOL memories. Then, the series will bid farewell when the remaining finalists battle it out live from the Dolby Theatre on Wednesday, April 6 (8:00-9:00 PM live ET/tape-delayed PT). On Thursday, April 7 (8:00-10:00 PM live ET/tape-delayed PT), the 15th AMERICAN IDOL will be crowned and the farewell celebration will continue, as IDOL pays tribute to the past 15 seasons, the amazingly talented contestants and the millions of fans who called, tweeted, texted and championed their IDOLS.

So enjoy the time we have because it will be truly over in a mere three months!

This recap will not be complete until the show actually airs although I have already seen it in advance. If anything, it will prove the usual maxim: the South trumps every other region for vocal talent. So Atlanta will be far more prevalent than Denver over the two hours. The “Idol” producers were so desperate in Denver, they flew in talent from the South to fill the time.

And Ryan Seacrest somehow missed Atlanta auditions but you’ll see him in Denver.

Read my time at the Atlanta auditions in September with video interviews with the judges!

Michelle Marie Lecza, Daytona Beach, 15 (“Blue” LeAnn Rimes) – She started watching 11 years ago when she was four, which means she remembers season three but not the first two. She remembered when Scott McIntyre dropped out of the competition and was upset. Her bangs are distracting and she seems a wee too cute. But her cover is very good and she’s through. “You did some things that are pretty technically difficult,” HCJ said. “Nice job.” Keith: “Really pretty voice.” Her family is allowed to run in after she gets the ticket.

After the commercial break, they show Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks and Clay Aiken as guest judges for the early rounds. And they show a few of those first round moments, where people note that they were too young to have seen them perform but their mom loves them (Taylor) or that they voted for Danny Gokey (to Kris Allen.). We get to hear some horrid singing and Clay looking verklempt.

Then we get Josiah Siska 18 (Dacula, golf course attendant, Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders”) – He has a serious deep voice, maybe deeper than Cash or even Scotty McCreery. Spontaneously, HCJ joins him with some handclapping jamboree work. “That was cool,” HCJ said. “We had never anything like that… You really believe in what you do.” He was even impressed that he knew a chromatic scale! He’s through to Hollywood.

Lindita Hamili (26, originally from Kosovo, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”) – She was once overweight but is now a personal trainer, inspired by her now husband, who was her personal trainer. “She sings like a heavy girl,” J Lo said, which sounds vaguely like an insult but is probably more an observation. It’s a bravura first audition which includes a massive note and she’s getting her ticket. “I love how you stick to the melody,” HCJ said, jokedly. “I liked it a lot If you commit to singing runs, then you went all the way and you have the ability to it. Fans eat that stuff up.” J Lo: “People would dream to come in and nailed it like that. You did a really great job.” Keith: “For me it’s trimming things out than finding things.” She is going to Hollywood, easy.

Travis “Billy Bob” Evett (Punta Gorda, Fla, sells welding supplies, Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”). If you picture the stereotype of a Billy Bob, out pops out this man. He’s a big ol’ country boy. “I’ve had the hots for her since she was a fly girl,” he drawled to J. Lo. Keith: “You’ve got a great heart. But the singing is just not strong enough.” JLo: “Not consistent enough. You were feeling it but it kept going off.” HCJ: “That’s closest to saying yes with so many pitch problems. I will have to say no but I sure do like you.” So he is the first reject of the night.

First sob story of the night. Lee Jean (15, Blufton, S.C., “I See Fire” Ed Sheeran) had an older brother die in an accident. This kid has soul in spades, a surprising depth given his age. JLo: “You’re so cute and so talented. There’s an ease about your talent and humility.” HCJ: “The basic singing in tune part needs a huge amount of work. That’s very doable for a guy like you.” Keith: “Your tone is really good and you have a great singer songwriter quality.”

First up is a girl who lives “off the grid” and yodels. She is so isolated, she uses a generator. She says they turn it on twice a week for “American Idol” or something silly like that. Jeneve Mitchell (15, Crawford, Col., “Chainsaw” The Band Perry) She’s the first contestant I’ve ever seen use a cello. And she sings with verve and commitment. Keith: “Your rhythmic sensibility is really compelling.” HCJ: “That was some crazy stupid funk. You’re a work in progress but there’s a lot to work with.” Taylor Hicks, who saw her in round one, showed up even for this portion of the auditions to congratulate her and play some harmonica. (Off grid means “Starbucks is out of pumpkin spice” to HCJ.) I give her a solid shot for the top 24.

Good HCJ line: “Naked and afraid. It sounds like my wedding night.”

Sonica Vaid, 20, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. (“Look At Me” Carrie Underwood) – Wow. This woman has a pretty pretty voice, someone who has “it.” JLo: “I love it a lot.” HCJ: “You sang beautifully. I was totally engaged… That was a purely God Given voice.” I agree with HCJ. She could win this based on that audition alone. And given the poor track record of New England to generate great singers, that’s saying something. For the first time, we see Ryan outside the door for somebody! (I get the impression he came for part of the time.)

Joseph Kohlruss, 15, Scottdale, Ariz. (“Hello” Lionel Richie) – One word: overwrought. JLo: “Super inconsistent.” Keith: “You got a big flexible range but you haven’t figured out how to use it yet.” Glad they kept him out.

Rihanna Molinario, 23, Hobbs, N.M. cop (“Leavin’ On Your Mind” Patsy Cline) Clearly, this whole handcuff bit was planned. Why would she be carrying them around to an audition? But HCJ gets handcuffed and stays handcuffed as she sings. And she’s pretty darn good. Great tone. HCJ: “A solid performance. Hard to critique when I can’t feel my hands.” JLo: “I feel like there could have been more performance quality but I feel you have a really good voice.” Keith: “A really pure country voice.”

They then play a litany of “Idol” sob stories. Jim Verraros (season one) and his deaf parents. Josiah Leming (season four) who lived in his car. Lazaro Arbos (season 12) who stuttered. Tent girl Amy Brumfield who lived in the woods. (season 11). James Durban with Tourette’s (season 9), Kellie Pickler (season 5) had her mother leave her when she was two and her dad was in and out of prison.

But instead of showing yet another story of woe, they throw us with a wackadoodle from Rayle GA Sylvia Lee Walker who babbles semi-nonsensically including something about yodeling. Keith is so charmed, he gives her a standing ovation before she even sings. (Yes, we are back in Georgia for some reason.) She then yodels, which is incredibly irritating. Ketih: “You are entertaining as a person but your pitch is all over the place.” Oddly, they didn’t ask her for a second song – a real song. (If they did, they may have simply edited it out.)

Montage time: “Idol” returnees are next: Shevonne Philidor, 24, Tampa, musician and DJ (“Disclosure” Latch) is at this for a sixth time. Kory Wheeler, 27, Jamestown, Tenn., barista is back after last year. Laurel Wright, 19, Maryville, Tenn., musician, returns, too. And all go to Hollywood. (They then play off Shevonne’s name by singing the “Laverne & Shirley” theme, showing they are all truly Gen Xers.)

In a move to show that Nick Fradiani hasn’t been forgotten, Seacrest talks to Scott Borchetta and Fradiani in Denver. “He’s been writing like crazy… We’ll have an incredible first album for Nick.” Nick responded to my Tweet wishing him good luck and hoping Borchetta lifts him to great heights!

Joshua Wicker, 25, Jacksonville, worship director (“Stay” Rihanna) – A really interesting, introspective take. HCJ: “Compelling.” Keith: “You sang it like you wrote it.” He and his wife had a baby three weeks later.

This led to a sequence of baby shots and Atlanta’s own Alex and Jordan Sasser. Both now live in Atlanta but they were identified as Raleigh, N.C. residents. Alex, 23, a worship leader, was up first with Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me” with a ukulele. She’s adorkable. HCJ: “I felt it was not passionate at all.” Keith: “Too light for me.” The judges say no. I liked it more than they did.

Jordan, 26, also a worship leader, is up next with Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.” His worship background is clear. It felt like church. JLo: “You sang it really well. I was into the song. At a moment I glanced over at your wife and I got teary.” HJC: “You’re a really talented vocalist.” Keith: “You have a great voice. But the light and buoyancy. You both have it.” So Jordan is through.

Then we see a sequence of folks who have either seen Keith in the past or had some distant connection to him. One woman served him Nutella crepes. One woman shared a vocal coach – supposedly. Another had done a Keith Urban infomercial. Yet another had a photo collage of his headshots. HCJ: “Creepy!”

They do a long sequence with Shelbie Z James, 23, Sumiton, Alabama, a hairstylist. She goes for Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name.” She’s very… loud. JLo: “You have a lot of character. You have a lot of fight in you.” HJC: “I don’t like you. I love you.”

Taylor Hicks eats up more airtime just because, jamming with Kerry Courtney, whose mom died young with cancer. The 24-year-old St. Petersburg liquor store worker sang “Black Sun” by Death Cab For Cutie. I’m not much of a fan of his voice but he definitely brings the intensity and darkness. Keith: “You have a unique style.” HCJ: “I was interested in him. It was quirky and different. What I just heard was an interesting piece of art.”

And the Kanye West bit is thrown in at the end for the heck of it? Thank Seacrest and his Kardashian ties!

My guess is ratings will be about the same as last year for this episode, that the fact it’s the last season will not draw many newcomers or people to come back. But loyalists will stick around. The overnight ratings for season 14’s debut was 11.2 million. I predict it will be between 10.2 million and 12.2 million. That’s a safe range. I’d be thrilled if it does better but I doubt that’s possible.