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American Idol contestants rock, Paul McDonald peaks

American Idol contestants put on the best Idol show of the season Wednesday with rock 'n' roll hits. Paul McDonald and Scotty McCreery showed American Idol fans what they can do.

American Idol contestant Paul McDonald celebrates at the American Idol Finalists Party in Los Angeles, March 3. After turning out a stellar Johnny Cash cover Wednesday, Paul McDonald has another reason to celebrate.

Chris Pizzello/AP

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On Wednesday, the Final 9 American Idol contestants embraced Rock and Roll week, delivering some of the best performances of this season.

In addition, will.i.am proved to be an amazingly entertaining and constructive mentor. Steven Tyler better sit up straight and pay attention because will.i.am brought, in this one episode, three times the charisma and constructive criticism that viewers have seen from Judge Tyler all season.

Here's a quick recap of Wednesday's performances:

Jacob Lusk, who originally contemplated performing Marvin Gaye's “Let’s Get It On,” felt conflicted by the message of the lyrics and opted for Michael Jackson’s “Man In the Mirror.” Jacob, dressed like an angel, actually performed with a smile on his face! It was refreshing to watch Jacob sing without seeming like he was in eternal suffering. Steven thought it was . . . "beautiful." (See first paragraph.) Jennifer said it was perfect and Randy was proud of the decisions Jacob made. B+

Haley Reinhart chose to perform Janis Joplin because the judges have been comparing Haley to Janis for weeks. “Piece of my Heart,” is an iconic Joplin song and Haley performed it well but the arrangement watered down the melody and punch of the original. Randy welcomed back the Haley that they loved from the beginning and Steven thanked her for rocking his world. B

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Casey Abrams (who is rumored to be dating Haley Reinhart) and his upright bass joined forces to deliver “Have you Ever Seen the Rain,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was a delightful, controlled performance by Casey who really seems to be taking the judges advice to heart and reigning in his growling. Also, has Casey lost a few pounds? Steven summed it up best when he said what fans have been saying from the beginning: Casey is more than a singer; he is a true musician. B+

Lauren Alaina selected “Natural Woman,” by Aretha Franklin. Lauren’s voice was spot on but one can’t help but wonder where the playful, confident girl from auditions and Hollywood week has gone. Despite her beautiful voice, she seemed to be channeling Thia Megia with her lack of connection to the song or the audience. The judges didn’t seem to mind; Steven called her a natural born woman and Randy said she did a good job. B

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James Durbin decided that he needed to take a risk this week with the slower song, performing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” by George Harrison. The beginning had pitch issues but James was clearly emotionally invested in the song, even wiping tears at the end. JLo loved the vulnerability and Steven added that it was a proud moment for James. B

Scotty McCreery harnessed the King of Rock himself with “That’s Alright Mama,” by Elvis, and delivered his best performance to date. Without taking himself too seriously, Scotty’s charm and great vocals were intoxicating, as was evidenced by the well choreographed rush of teenage girls to the stage just as he finished the last note. Who ever saw such orderly unbridled passion? Randy said Scotty was "in it to win it" and JLo detected “a little bit of flavor,” which Scotty attributed to his Puerto Rican blood. A-

Pia Toscano bid adieu to her ballads and performed, “River Deep, Mountain High,” by Tina Turner. With the help of Gwen Stefani’s printed potato sack, Pia managed to transform her gorgeous self into a 1980’s inspired frump. While she tried to break out of her ballad bondage, aside from a leisurely stroll around the judges table, Pia stayed firmly rooted to one spot. If viewers were to watch her on mute (something that should be reserved for a Stefano Langone performance) they wouldn’t be able to tell she wasn’t singing a ballad. Steven called her a murderer – because she killed it. (I’m creating a “will.i.am for American Idol Judge 2012” shirt as your read this.) JLo and Randy kept it real by telling Pia that she needs to work on her performance and movements. C+

Stefano Langone, who by all accounts should have gone home last week, sang “When a Man Loves a Woman,” by Percy Sledge. To outweigh his ridiculous phrasing, expressions, and lip-licking, Stefano would need to sing like an angel, which he does not. Despite the judges fawning over him, if there is any justice he will be the one to go this week. C-

And that leaves the best for last.

Paul McDonald sang “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. will.i.am and record producer Jimmy Iovine urged Paul to let loose with the song and get a little crazy. The result? The best performance of the night and certainly of Paul’s journey. Finally, after weeks of waiting for him to really unleash the strength of his voice, Paul peaked! It couldn’t have come at a better time after finding himself in the bottom three last week. The judges, running out of time, didn’t adequately gush IMHO, but JLo did say it was the perfect way to end the show. A

As the numbers dwindle, predictions become more difficult. Tough week to choose a bottom three, but let’s go with:

  1. Stefano Langone
  2. Haley Reinhart
  3. Lauren Alaina

Expect (and its not just wishful thinking) that Stefano Langone will leave us Thursday night.

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