Sept. 9, 2011 -- Eight songful dreamers came to Los Angeles and when it was all over, the dreams of four continued while the others were cut short.
It was the semifinals of Karaoke Battle USA on ABC, pitting the best guy and girl karaoke singer of four regions across the country against each other, and in the end it was the semifinalists who took the biggest chances that reaped the biggest rewards.
The battle started with west-region semifinalist, 45-year-old music teacher Sammy Vijarro-- the self-confessed old guy of the group. "I'm 45 years old, and it's great to be able to compete with these youngins," Sammy said. "I hope that speaks to middle-aged people out there to continue on with what you love." The judges were afraid Sammy would not shine through his performance and make his song his own, but after a rousing rendition of "Unchain My Heart," they were proven wrong. "I got a little more of a sense of who you are tonight, I really did," said judge Joe Levy.
Meredith McHenry followed, promising, "tonight I'm going to step out on that stage and show the judges a side of me they've never seen before." And she did not disappoint, belting out Alicia Keys' "No One." It was a novel choice, well out of Meredith's comfort zone, and judge Carnie Wilson noticed. "You seemed a little tiny bit hoarse to me," she said, "a little bit straining to me at times." But judge Brian "The Cowboy" Scott didn't hear the same, congratulating Meredith for "your energy, your vibe," calling her, "just a special, special lady."
Next, it was the south's turn, with big man RL Bell leading the way. The highly-competitive body builder psyched himself up before taking the stage, telling our cameras, "for the semifinals, I'm going to try and bring something that I feel the other guys can't bring and that's the strength of singing. I'm not playing around. I really want this." Much to the dismay of the judges, however, RL chose another down-tempo ballad in "Georgia on My Mind," continuing with a trend he's maintained throughout the competition. Judge Carnie noted, "I kinda wish you did, like, an up-tempo song because we've seen it before." Judge Brian quipped, "a man cannot live on ballads alone."
Then, Nashville transplant Charlotte Hicks took the stage with Judge Joe Levy providing this advice to the big-voiced singer: "Tonight for Charlotte the challenge is working in another mode than 'overkill.' Can she do friendly, can she do loving, can she hold the audience's hand and let them know she cares, not just that she's going to blow them away." Charlotte chose the Janis Joplin classic, "Piece of My Heart," which didn't appear to follow judge Joe's advice. He complained, "I got a little too much Janis at times" and said Charlotte growled too much during the performance. But Carnie and Brian disagreed, with Carnie calling it, "unflippin' believable," and Brian flirtatiously telling Charlotte, "you can growl for me any time."
North semifinalist Josh Scholl dedicated his performance to his Grandma Rose, saying she's always with him in spirit. And Josh seemed to make the most daring choice of the group, giving up his self-admitted big "80s cover band" style for the softer, more thoughtful "Drops of Jupiter" by Train. In the end, the gamble really paid off, with Carnie calling him "the most comfortable performer in this entire competition on stage, you are incredible."
Will 'Last Name' Be Cassandra's Last Chance?
Cassandra Mae, however, stayed right smack in the middle of her comfort zone, and she knew it, too, admitting "there's a lot on the line and I just really have to go with my heart." Cassandra's heart is all country, and she chose accordingly, belting out Carrie Underwood's country-rocker "Last Name." That did not get past Brian "the Cowboy" Scott, who said, "we're not looking for imitators, that was so Carrie Underwood for me, and I want to see Cassandra!" Judge Joe disagreed saying Cassandra did enough to make the song her own, and Carnie could only exclaim, "you are outrageous, girl!"
Farm boy Creigh Riepe was dumbfounded by all the attention, saying, "I never really expected my voice to carry me to big cities like New York and L.A." It was that humble attitude that had Carnie countering, "I don't think Creigh really knows how good he is." Creigh came to the stage with Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" which wowed the judges vocally, but left some judges doubting the 19-year-old's stage presence. Judge Brian questioned Creigh's persistent "bending and kneeling" on stage, but congratulated him on the "warm quality" of his voice.
Shantel Norman wrapped it all up, sizing up her chances by telling us, "I don't think I have the best voice here, but I think I connect with the audience better." Shantel dedicated her performance of Tina Turner's classic "The Best" to her son, saying, "now that my son has gotten older, I'm not holding out for nobody." She continued, "I try to teach my son if there's something that you want, you have to go and get it yourself. You can't give up you can't let anything hold you back." It was clear to the judges that she didn't hold back, with Carnie praising her "commanding performance. The intensity was there, your vocals were off the hook!" Judge Scott commented wryly, "It's a shame you're shy. It really is."
But the singing eventually had to stop and a decision had to be made. In the end, guys Josh Scholl and Sammy Vijarro had the scores to move on, leaving Creigh Riepe and RL Bell behind. RL took it in stride, saying, "I'm RL, I gotta continue to do what I do." For the ladies, Shantel and Cassandra bested Meredith and Charlotte. Meredith left the stage saying, "I think what I'll take away from this is that I'm just never going to be happy doing anything else but singing."
Only four remain-- who will be our Karaoke King and Queen? Keep watching Karaoke Battle USA on ABC Fridays 9 / 8 Central to find out!