‘Voice’ diva sends powerful COVID message with Stevie Wonder cover: ‘Teachers, keep on teachin’’

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With The Voice Season 19 truncated due to its coronavirus-related late start, the Knockout Rounds have already begun, less than a month after the Blind Auditions premiere. And with this briskly paced season’s teams — which started with 10 singers each instead of the usual 12 — now down to only seven each going into Tuesday’s Knockouts, it was inevitable that we’d be bidding a sad, premature farewell to some worthy contenders who might’ve lasted longer in other, normal seasons.

One of those shocking early exits was Casmé — who just the night before, during the final Battle Rounds, had been called a “superstar” by her coach, John Legend, and had even been compared to Diana Ross by Kelly Clarkson. But while John and the Knockouts’ Mega-Mentor, Usher, declared “may the best soul sister win” when Casmé faced off against fellow Team Legend diva Tamara Jade (an epic pairing that Usher likened to Verzuz’s recent Patti LaBelle/Gladys Knight battle), there was no way that John could ignore Tamara’s COVID-appropriate, hopeful messaging when she took the stage.

Tamara Jade gives an emotional pandemic performance on 'The Voice' Season 19. (Photo: NBC)Tamara Jade gives an emotional pandemic performance on 'The Voice' Season 19. (Photo: NBC)
Tamara Jade gives an emotional pandemic performance on ‘The Voice’ Season 19. (Photo: NBC)

Tamara chose to cover Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” explaining, “The world needs this song right now. I don’t know if I’ve ever known of a darker time in history in my 30 years.” Usher, who performed the up-with-people soul singalong with Stevie Wonder and fellow former Voice coach Shakira at Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration, remarked, “That was really smart of her to choose this moment,” referring to a specific line in the song that Tamara emphasized: “Teachers, keep on teachin’.”

During rehearsal, Tamara revealed that her mother is a special education teacher and phones her every day in tears due to the stress of working during the pandemic. So, when Tamara belted that line and shouted out, “This one is for y’all at home! … We need you right now!” — while pointing to the studio’s Zoom-squared virtual audience — it was powerful and poignant. She instantly lifted the energy in the room, even though the room was mostly empty. “I really heard the mission in your voice,” said a clearly moved John.

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Tamara threw herself, body and soul, into her joyful and uninhibited performance — the first performance of Tuesday’s episode, which made everything else that followed, including poor Casmé’s cover of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball,” feel anticlimactic. By the time Tamara got to her spectacular, James Brown-like big finish (seriously, Carson Daly totally should have brought out a cape for her), Kelly was hollering, “You are living your best life!” This tour de force would be nearly impossible for Casmé to top. “Lordy, Lordy, it’s gonna be tough,” warned John.

Tamara Jade salutes teachers on 'The Voice.' (Photo: NBC)Tamara Jade salutes teachers on 'The Voice.' (Photo: NBC)
Tamara Jade salutes teachers on ‘The Voice.’ (Photo: NBC)

Casmé’s outside-the-box rock ‘n’ soul performance was interesting, and definitely more modern than Tamara’s, but Tamara put on a show and made a statement. It was Tamara who actually came in like a wrecking ball. So, Tamara prevailed — but surprisingly, John didn’t save Casmé, nor did any other coach steal her. It’s hard to believe that a powerhouse and seeming frontrunner like Casmé didn’t even make it to the Playoffs, but I am definitely looking forward to the much-needed good vibes that the vibrant Tamara will soon bring to the live Voice stage as this season hurries along.

These were the other two Knockout Rounds of Tuesday’s hour-long episode:

TEAM GWEN: Payge Turner vs. Ryan Berg

While John’s strategy of pitting two stellar vocalists like Tamara and Casmé against each other could at least be explained by the fact that they occupied the same lane on his team, this apples/oranges pairing made little sense. In one socially distanced corner, we had sultry, stage-commanding, alt-glam queen Payge, looking like a Prince protégé and serving Lisa Bonet-meets-Grace Jones realness, as she had what Blake called an “out of-body experience” during her almost Hedwig-like version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” And in the other corner, there was laconic cool cat Ryan, looking like the lost fourth Midland member as he broodingly crooned “Making Me Look Good Again” by Drake White. “This is Urban Cowboy,” Blake quipped, pointing at Ryan, before turning to Payge and saying, “And this is Saturday Night Fever.”

Gwen explained that these singers were “both weirdos, in a good way.” Usher noted that Ryan’s subtleties were his strengths — his previously unheard falsetto this week was very pretty, and a very pleasant surprise — and Gwen told Ryan, “Your inner weirdness came out in the best way. You’re really a guy who wakes up onstage in the moment.” But I knew Gwen would connect more with Payge: During rehearsal, Gwen noted that they were cut from the same alt-rock cloth, and actually said that she could imagine them being in a band together. I don’t think Payge was the wrong choice here, but I do question this pairing in the first place. And once again, I question why Ryan wasn’t stolen or saved. I suppose all of these early eliminations are simply testament to the surplus of talent this season.

WINNER: Payge Turner

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TEAM BLAKE: Ben Allen vs. Worth the Wait

Blake employed the same lane-narrowing strategy that John had used with Tamara-vs.-Casmé, putting together his two “classic country” contestants. But unlike that Team Legend double-stunner, this was an all-around dull Knockout that honestly could have been montaged. The risk-averse Ben did a self-described “straight-down-the-middle” country song by Luke Combs, “She Got the Best of Me,” and family trio Worth the Wait gave a county fair-level performance of “Delta Dawn” that Blake described as “country 101.” That being said, Ben’s high-sheen vocal sounded professional and what they call in the biz “recordable,” if hardly unique. John said it was “almost boring” how “consistently good” Ben’s singing is, while Kelly called Ben “rock-steady” and told him, “No one is concerned about you faltering.”

Meanwhile, Worth the Wait totally faltered. The coaches bizarrely fawned over their a cappella intro, but I still didn’t think they’d tightened up their harmonies nearly enough. I can only assume it was the lowered expectations for Worth the Wait that led to them earning them so much gushing praise, or the novelty that they’re a trio and Blake thinks “it’s time that a trio makes it to the finale on this show.” So, Blake picked Worth the Wait… but then, Gwen stole Ben! Huh? Looking at this lineup at the start of the episode, I never would have predicted that it’d be Casmé and Ryan going home, while Ben would be the one to stay. But Gwen stated, “If I’m ever going to have a country artist on my team, this is the moment,” so we will see what happens in the Live Playoffs.

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