Our long, national, pre-taped nightmare is over, America. “The Voice” has finally moved onto the live episodes, which they are dubbing “Playoffs” for reasons that probably made sense at once point in a marketing meeting. Each team now has 5 contestants, with only 12 of the current 20 making it through this week. I assume that means each team will be reduced to three participants through a combination of coaches’ picks, audience votes, iTunes downloads, and some calculations Nate Silver dreamed up the other night after listening to some Maroon 5. 
 
With the Knockout Rounds over, I’m returning to a running diary for the three (yes, three) episodes this week. Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera, CeeLo Green, and Blake Shelton will no longer have the power of post-production editing at their disposal to come off sane in their analysis tonight. Then again, in some cases, not even careful film splicing could help their decisions make any sense at all. But the thing that concerns me the most? The overblown production values that usually start creeping in around this time of the season. The show is called “The Voice”, and not “Lots of Cirque du Soleil Dudes Running Around In Dry Ice”, for a reason.
 
Onto the recap!
 
8:00 p.m. Onstage with Carson Daly are members of Team Blake and Team Adam. Daly explains the breakdown: the audience will save two per team, and the coaches will save one after those two choices are locked down. I thought as much, but didn’t want to assume anything given the subtle changes thus far this season.
 
8:02 p.m. CeeLo as “early 80’s Prince” will haunt my dreams forever.
 
8:03 p.m. We get a quick recap of the season to date, for those that haven’t watched thus far this season. Judging by the number of comments on this blog thus far, I’d say that’s a good idea. Ratings for the show have been tremendous thus far for NBC, but I imagine those will only increase now that the live episodes are here.
 
8:04 p.m. “It’s really up to them to outshine each other,” says Levine about his team. Newly-crowned CMT Entertainer Of The Year Shelton calls his team “perfection,” feeling that it will be tough for both America and himself to eliminate two of them.
 
8:06 p.m. What do Green and Aguilera hope their teams will learn while watching tonight? Green stumbles badly on his answer, fighting both his wig and the English language itself in trying to come up with an answer. Aguilera says that she is simply excited to take a backseat tonight. Her bright pink bra says otherwise.
 
8:08 p.m. The ten contestants competing tonight start off with a group performance of Boston’s “Peace Of Mind”. In a million years, I wouldn’t have predicted this song appearing in this context. It’s no surprise that Terry McDermott leads off, as he has the strongest rock vocal remaining. Others have varying degrees of success in tackling this FM staple, with Amanda Brown another unsurprising standout. There’s not much to really judge here, since who can fault someone like Melanie Martinez for being out of her element when it comes to a song like this? She’s never record a track like this, even if she won the entire event. This segment allows for another single to be sold on iTunes, and I’ll treat it as such in terms of my overall opinions about tonight’s performances.
 
8:14 p.m. The first playoff contestant, from Team Adam, is Joselyn Rivera. She’s singing Demi Levato’s “Give Your Heart A Break”. In rehearsals, Levine stresses that she needs to make an emotional connection above and beyond her technical prowess.
 
8:15 p.m. Rivera starts off her performance walking down a flight of stairs. Oh God, we saw how this ended on “American Idol”, right? Luckily, she makes it down without tripping. Whew. (Haley Reinhardt fell UP stairs, not down, come to think of it.) Unfortunately, this might be her worst vocal of the competition thus far. She’s breathy from the outset, undoubtedly due to nerves and the adrenaline of the live episode. Rivera looks like a pop star, but she doesn’t exactly sound like one tonight.
 
8:18 p.m. “You just look good on a big stage like this,” says Shelton. That has nothing to do with her vocal, but OK. Aguilera thought Rivera overcame her fear of singing and moving at the same time, and suggests she tackle a ballad should she make it through this round. I can’t hear anything Green says, because his outfit is distracting to the point of annoyance. God forbid the attention is on the contestants. Levine feels that Rivera thrived in the environment, which bodes well for her ability to get through this week. I’ve enjoyed Rivera’s work to this point in the season. I just didn’t hear anything tonight that felt deserving of the praise she just got.
 
8:21 p.m. This is the point where I remind you, but mostly myself, that these four artists are called “coaches” and not “judges” for a reason.
 
8:25 p.m. It’s out first check in with Christina Milian in the Social Media Skybox. I have a feeling I’ll not be appearing onscreen this season with my tweets. Just a guess.
 
8:27 p.m. Next up, straight out of Team Blake, it’s Terry McDermott. Shelton gives him Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” as his song. McDermott says there are many “landmines” within the tune, which will require him to step up his vocal game come the live show. Mostly, he just need to not sound like “Rock Of Ages” and he’ll be fine.
 
8:28 p.m. Terry nearly chokes on the first high note, but somehow makes it through. After that, he settles in nicely, heading downstage to make a connection with those sitting in the front row. Whereas Rivera got swallowed up onstage, he prowls around, playing to all sides of the studio audience. He also gets the added benefits of carefully calibrated camera angles that add to the impression that he’s everywhere onstage at once. I didn’t think much of McDermott before the Knockout Rounds. Now? He feels like a serious contender to make it into the final week of the show.
 
8:30 p.m. Aguilera calls his voice “effortless”, while being sure to compliment his precision. Green calls him the “genuine article rock-and-roll”. That’s a mangled sentiment, but I understand what he meant. (For once tonight!) Shelton says, “I want America to know: When God was passing out the ability to rock, he gave Terry just a little bit more.”
 
8:36 p.m. Back from commercial break, it’s back to Team Adam, with Melanie Martinez on deck to perform. She chooses Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road, Jack” as her playoff performance. (I’m unclear on why some artists get to choose their own material, and others don’t. But it’s also possible I’m misunderstanding what’s going on.) She calls her arrangement “sassy”, but I call it “Melanie-esque”. It’s pretty much her bread-and-butter routine. We’ve seen it three times already. But hey, it’s gotten her this far. Why mess with success?
 
8:38 p.m. Martinez starts downstage of the coaches, eventually sauntering in front of them. Levine’s eyes are closed, and he’s nodding his head back and forth as if in a trance. Martinez adds a little Eartha Kitt to her normal stage repertoire, and it’s a nice touch to a vocal performance that is as consistent as anything she’s done thus far this season. I still maintain it’s too limiting to take her to the finals, but someone like Martinez is probably destined for a small, devoted following in any case.
 
8:40 p.m. Shelton’s favorite thing about Martinez? That she has no interest in fitting in with what’s popular. Aguilera actually slams the interpretation even while praising her artistic vision, hedging on what she really thinks but conveying her message all the same. Levine says that he didn’t find himself comparing her performance to Charles’ once during her routine, saying he was “mesmerized” by what she did. (See! Toldja!)
 
8:47 p.m. Up next is Team Blake member Liz Davis. You’ll remember her as the one that kept singing songs originally performed by Shelton’s wife, which wasn’t creepy at all. This time around, she’s tackling Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” at the behest of Shelton. He wants to push past her “outlaw girl” persona with this ballad, noting that she’s the last country performer left in the competition.
 
8:48 p.m. Davis starts off in the middle of the crowd. The camera angle makes it seem as if she’s floating among them. It helps sell her as a star from the first notes of the song. As she moves onto the stage proper, it’s clear that Shelton’s song selection works, and not only because it’s not another Miranda Lambert tune. The “softening” he hoped for brings out a new tone in her vocal, yielding one that could easily fill an arena full of country music fans. As far as her performances to date, this may have been her finest yet.
 
8:51 p.m. Green appreciated the quiet moments in the beginning of the song, and both he and Aguilera appreciate the timing of the performance given tomorrow’s elections. Shelton thanks Davis “for proving me right”, calling her the right country artist to bring into the live rounds. Gracia Harrison might have been the better overall country singer, but I’ll cede that Davis is the better country artist for this competition.
 
8:57 p.m. More Milian! She tells us that Jerry Seinfeld tweeted about CeeLo’s shirt. JOURNALISM!
 
8:58 p.m. Milian reads off some tweets. The #things #people #hashtag. I’m telling ya. #Too #much.
 
9:00 p.m. Moving on, we stay with Team Blake, this time with Cassadee Pope taking center stage. She’s singing Avril Lavinge’s “My Happy Ending”. Shelton tells the camera that he’s thought more about Pope than any other contestant, feeling she has all the ingredients to be a superstar. After a few missed notes, she second-guesses her selection, and contemplates changing up the melody to something more in her comfort zone. Shelton advises against it, feeling that a well-executed vocal of something familiar will trump any appreciation audiences might have for her artistry. (She’s like a bizarro Melanie Martinez that way, I guess.)
 
9:02 p.m. Looks like Pope went with a new melody anyways, but it’s a lovely one all the same. So no harm, no foul on that front. I don’t remember ever seeing that tattoo on her arm before, but it doesn’t hurt the pop-rock vibe she’s attempting here. Still, tattoo or no, she nails this performance. She’s got that “superstar” quality in spades, gaining confidence with each bar and eventually having the audience eat out of the palm of her hand. On top of that, her vocal actually gets better as the song progresses. Of all the artists on the show, I can see Pope having the easiest transition to radio. That doesn’t mean she’s the best singer in this competition, and it certainly doesn’t mean she’ll win it. But we’ll be hearing from her long after this season is over.
 
9:04 p.m. Aguilera notes that Pope missed a high note, and then…misses the same note when trying to demonstrate how to sing it. Awkward. Green appreciated her approach, saying she gave it a vulnerability he didn’t hear in Lavinge’s “deadpan delivery”. Levine’s less sold than his compatriots. “I still want to know who you are,” he says. “Who is the real Cassadee Pope?” (Well, she’s the girl going into the Final 12. How’s that for a start, Adam?) Shelton agrees with my earlier assessment, saying that Levine will have plenty of time to get to know her once this show is over, regardless if she wins the show or not.
 
9:09 p.m. Let’s head on back to Team Adam, where Bryan Keith and his hat are ready to take the stage by storm. His tune? The Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”. Safe choice for him there. (It’ll be a quiet storm taking that stage, I guess.) Levine emphasizes that a mid-tempo song like this calls for incredible precision with every note in order to sell the tune as a whole.
 
9:11 p.m. In front of the live crowd, Keith has a low register that manages to be expressive without the benefit of any vocal pyrotechnics. Luckily, “Iris” has moments involving the latter in spades. In terms of commanding the stage, he pales in comparison to some of the others we’ve seen thus far tonight. But he has a quality to his voice that simply isn’t matched by anyone else. It’s not pop, and it’s not rock, and it’s not R&B. It contains aspects of all three, but also has an edge that’s rough without being abrasive. Whether or not that helps him out or sends him home will be seen on Thursday.
 
9:13 p.m. Shelton has a hard time speaking over the cacophony of ladies shouting in the audience. “Who am I to say anything?” he says. “Listen to these people.” Aguilera thinks everyone got excited due to how much Keith owned the song as it built towards its crescendo. “You have a very comforting way about you,” says Levine, noting that he had to do very little in the coaching process to help Keith achieve that.
 
9:20 p.m. The most unlikely of Team Blake members, Michaela Paige, is next. (I mean that in the best way. She’s great. He’s great. But why isn’t she on Green’s team?) He’s chosen Neon Trees’ “Everybody Talks” for her to perform tonight. He tells her that she’s as talented as anyone in the competition, and she effusively praises his guidance throughout the show. Now I want a “Hannah Montana”-esque show featuring this two on NBC this Spring. Is that too much to ask?
 
9:22 p.m. Putting Paige in front of the stage band? Nice move. Having her bolt on into the middle of the audience for the soaring chorus? Better move. I’ll go ahead and call this the most pleasantly surprising performance of the show tonight thus far. Again, I dig Paige, but I’m not sure I was prepared for such a polished performance featuring a song I’ve heard a million times but feel like I’m discovering tonight for the first time. Not only does she hit every pop-punk moment, but also exhibits some Alison Brie-esque “Did I do that?” charisma as well. Not that Brie would ever rock a mohawk. So, if you’re keeping score this round: Paige 1, Brie 0.
 
9:24 p.m. Green calls it the best performance of the night. (He’s so impressed that he’s coherent! Paige is a miracle worker!) Levine seems as surprised as me, calling himself a fan of hers after that number. “You had your best performance at the most important time,” he says. Shelton is relieved to hear the praise, since he thought it was the strongest of the night as well. We still have thirty minutes to go, but that might be hard to top.
 
9:30 p.m. “Now, hold those Sprint phones up high! Or these puppies will feel pain like they’ve never felt before!” – What I imagine “The Voice” producers told contestants just before the latest social media segment
 
9:31 p.m. We stay on Team Blake, with Julio Cesar Castillo now in the show’s spotlight. No Bieber for him this week; instead, he’ll be performing the traditional mariachi song “El Rey”. Shelton asks him to really dramatize the song during his vocal performance in order to sell it to audience members for whom the language barrier might be a problem. “This is a concert,” Blake says. “This isn’t a restaurant.”
 
9:33 p.m. The difference between last week and this week couldn’t be more pronounced. He’s confident, dramatic, and compelling from the get go. Also? I love that a song like “El Rey” is being performed on the cornerstone of a broadcast network’s primetime lineup. That’s just awesome. Aguilera is visibly moved by the performance, giving it a standing ovation at the end. Given how indifferent she has been towards others tonight, that’s saying something. Much like Paige, Castillo just picked the best possible moment to execute his best vocal to date.
 
9:35 p.m. Afterwards, the camera shows Lou Diamond Phillips. Because of course it does. Sigh.
 
9:36 p.m. “You made all the Latino people so proud!” gushes Aguilera. Shelton reiterates that he served as a stand-in for many watching, and that he understood the song tonight in a way he hadn’t before thanks to Castillo’s emotive quality. The audience seems to agree, having joined Aguilera and Shelton in that aforementioned standing ovation. I thought Castillo was the weakest pick of the Knockout Rounds. Well, I’ll eat crow now. That was still a bad performance last week, but Castillo deserves his place at this point in the show regardless.
 
9:42 p.m. The biggest surprise on Team Adam is next, in the form of Loren Allred. What seemed like a slaughter in the making turned into the biggest upset of the Knockout Rounds. Instead of Amy Winehouse, Allred will be performing Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around The World”. (No, kids, this isn’t a P. Diddy song. I promise!) Levine hopes that she doesn’t play things safe at this stage in the competition.
 
9:44 p.m. Whoever picked out that dress for her deserves an Emmy. That’s both a shallow comment but an important one, since it not only emphasizes her subtle movements but also helps sell the Allred’s persona as a sultry soul singer. I’d love to know what alchemical properties transform Allred every time she steps on that stage, so I can bottle it and sell it to the highest bidder. Was this as good as last week? No, but only because the element of surprise wasn’t there. That’s the only real difference. Put the two side-by-side independent of context, however, and you’d have a hard time placing one over the other.
 
9:47 p.m. While Levine really liked the performance, he implores her to find a song that lets her explore and exploit the upper registers that she hit towards the end of the song. I’m not 100% on board with that suggestion, since I’ve enjoyed these last two performances so much. But that’s more about me being selfish than anything else. I didn’t think lightning would strike twice. But it just did. Will we see lightning strike a third time next week? It’s difficult to say, mostly because it’s difficult to say if she’ll even be around at this point.
 
9:51 p.m. If you were wondering how highly that “The Voice” values Team Adam member Amanda Brown, her placement as the last singer of the night should tell you all you need to know. This time around, she’s chosen Aerosmith’s “Dream On”. Had she not chosen a rock tune last week, this would be more shocking. As it stands, this is both a safe choice but also a dangerous one. If she doesn’t nail it, this could be a crash-and-burn scenario.
 
9:52 p.m. Then again, the likelihood of that crash is almost 0%. Come on.
 
9:53 p.m. The former back-up singer looks pretty damn natural in front of the stage band. Whereas Rivera looked small in the center of the stage at the outset of tonight’s show, it’s the stage that looks small at this point. When she hits the big finish, it’s an epic as you could hope for. But when she hits the falsetto….ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Chills. Goose bumps. The whole nine. That’s why she ended the show. And that’s why she’ll be there at the end of the season.
 
9:55 p.m. Carson Daly has to calm the crowd down in order to get in coaches’ comments in time. Aguilera loves the rock vibe that Brown brings to the proceedings. Levine says she “obliterated” the notion that she could do only one thing with her performance tonight, calling it the “true” best performance of the night.
 
9:56 p.m. My top two performances: Amanda Brown and Michaela Paige. My bottom two performances: Joselyn Rivera and Melanie Martinez. Everyone else was in the solid middle, with little separation between them. I even liked Martinez’s performance, but a little of her goes a long way in competitions like this. Overall, this was a strong showing of vocal talent tonight, easily the best top-to-bottom show so far. That should be the case at this stage of the game, but it’s nice to see it play out that way nonetheless.
 
9:58 p.m. If I had to guess who will go through? From Team Adam: Bryan Keith, Amanda Brown, and Loren Allred. From Team Blake: Liz Davis, Michaela Paige, and Cassadee Pope. I like McDermott a lot, but I just don’t see things going his way, especially with Shelton’s confessed desire to get a country singer into the finals.
 
What did you think of the first live playoff? Have any predictions about which three will continue from each time? Who will you be voting for? Sound off below!