"The Voice" kicked off its Season 6 battle rounds on Monday, and they were as hotly fought as ever, with team members shed and stolen, sometimes so quickly that contestants barely had a chance to thank their old coaches before turning to thank their new ones.
To prepare, the coaches brought in mentors from the music industry. Shakira enlisted Blake Shelton's wife, Miranda Lambert, who said she looked forward to being a "girl power advocate" going up against her spouse. Adam Levine got help from singer-songwriter Aloe Blacc. Usher had Grammy winner Jill Scott at his side. And Shelton, perhaps compensating for his wife's defection, brought in a trio of advisors, the members of the Band Perry.
Team Usher's gritty-voiced soul singer Biff Gore, who had turned four chairs during the blinds, faced off against younger R&B singer T.J. Wilkins, who'd turned three, on the Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." Calling the battle "old school vs. new school," Usher said he was hoping the singers would show "conviction." Gore also showed off a squat and a high kick.
"Where did you learn those kicks from? Blake?" Shakira asked. Levine called their energy "infectious." Shelton called the battle "pure entertainment." Usher said each singer had pushed the other to improve, but ultimately picked Wilkins.
"I picked T.J. because of the fight that was there," Usher said. "T.J. was relentless … I want a fighter on my team."
But don't cry for Gore. Shelton stole him right away, calling him a "great entertainer" and "once-in-a-lifetime artist." Plus, he said, "I'm not only a big fan of Biff's singing, but the high kicks. He can get up there with his voice and he can get way up there with his foot, too."
For the next battle, Shelton pitted two teenage country singers, returnee Jake Worthington, a three-chair turn, and Lexi Luca, a one-chair turn who seemed to be struggling with nerves. "Clearly, Jake has the advantage," Shelton noted before the two squared off to sing Thomas Rhett's "It Goes Like This."
Luca's nervousness continued to work to her disadvantage. Usher urged her to find her "fearlessness" and then called Worthington's performance "stellar."
"I've got to go with my gut here, and the winner of this battle is Jake," Shelton said.
Backstage, Worthington found Luca to offer comfort. "Don't worry about anything. You did a hell of a job," he said, adding, "Your family loves you. Your friends love you. That's all that matters." Sweet guy!
Shakira paired power belter Dani Moz, who works in PR, with small-town soul singer Deshawn Washington on Emeli Sande's "My Kind of Love." Washington, whose blind audition had gotten more airtime, seemed to be the favorite going in, and the other coaches seemed to think he'd won. "Big things come in small packages," Usher told him. But Shakira picked Moz, "just because I think I can do so much more with you going forward," she told the singer.
Despite the compliments, no one stole Washington.
Levine had rocker/nanny Kat Perkins, who had turned three chairs during the blinds, and bearded Missouri musician Patrick Thomson, who had turned two, sing the Kenny Loggins/Stevie Nicks duet "Whenever I Call You 'Friend.'" (Cue coach snickers about the lyric "I know forever we'll be doing it.")
Shakira thought Thomson may have taken the match, calling his voice "timeless." Shelton preferred Perkins. Usher may not even have heard the song before.
Levine said he thought both singers "could be in the top 5" in the competition, but ultimately picked Perkins, crediting her "overall strength."
Shakira swooped in and stole Thomson, saying she was "just a sucker" for voices like his and calling him (three times) "so good."
The Team Blake matchup between Paula DeAnda, a former teen pop star who during blinds had turned two chairs, and Sisaundra Lewis, a former vocal director for Celine Dion who had turned all four chairs during the blinds, was bound, as Shelton predicted, to be "a great battle, epic." He'd given them Lady Gaga's "Do What U Want," which she had sung with Christina Aguilera on last season's "Voice" finale.
"As a viewer this is going to be one of the best battles of the season," Shelton said. "As a coach, this is going to be miserable for me."
DeAnda did her best, but Lewis easily dominated, hitting an electrifying high note. Usher and Shakira couldn't compliment her enough.
Even on a show that frequently tips the scales toward youth, Shelton had no choice but to choose the veteran singer. "I felt like Paula did such a great job singing against a powerhouse vocalist," he said, after DeAnda, unstolen, had departed. "But Sisaundra stands alone on Team Blake." No one, he said, was "anywhere near interfering with what she's capable of and who she is as an artist."
For the last battle of the night, Usher paired off cute New York bartender Jake Barker, a three-chair turn whose stage fright has curtailed his career, and metal-turned-R&B singer Stevie Jo, who during the blinds had turned only Usher with his take on one of the coach's own songs.
Their performance on Steve Winwood's "Higher Love" earned a standing ovation not only from their coach, but from Levine as well.
Shakira said both singers "drew us in" and said she'd pick Barker — or maybe Stevie Jo.
"Here's the good news. You're both going to make it through because [the singer] who doesn't make it is going to be on my team," Levine told them, before bickering with Shakira over who'd expressed interest in a steal first.
Shelton said he'd "never seen a more evenly matched battle," but added that, because it was only Barker's second performance ever, he might pick him.
"In all my time, it's never been this hard," Usher said. Ultimately, though, he went with Stevie Jo.
"I love Usher. Thank you, Usher. You're the best," Stevie Jo's mother said backstage, as Levine and Shakira pressed their buttons for the Barker steal. "I want to hug him!"
Shelton also went for the steal, making it a three-way fight. But Levine made a hard sell, reminding Barker that he'd won the competition last season, that they both had tattoos, that they probably shared musical tastes.
"I'm really, really, really torn," Barker said, "but I think I'm going to have to go with Adam.
"I've got big plans for that Jake," Levine said.
More battles Tuesday. What do you think of the rounds so far?
ALSO:Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun