The countdown is on for the opening of the envelope that will reward months of hard work. Yes, tonight’s the big night for “The Voice” to crown the winner with its Season 11 finale, a season that will go down in the record books as the first to feature two female coaches alongside the male pillars of the show who have occupied its now iconic red chairs since the beginning.
NBC has packed the show not only with performances from the final four — Josh Gallagher, Billy Gilman, Sundance Head and Wé McDonald — but also with a slew of music superstars including Sting, the Weeknd and Bruno Mars, alongside some unannounced artists we’ve just confirmed: Kelly Clarkson and KISS.
Having been an admirer from the very start, I was drawn in by the concept of the blind auditions in which race, creed, age and body type have absolutely no bearing on talent. Yet in recent years I have tried to stay away — but only because of the time commitment involved in watching the competition play out and then culminate with the grand finale. It’s never worked — I always vote to stay in after watching the first episode of each season.
It’s a tribute to how well the show is produced, the quality of the artists chosen to participate and the authenticity of the coaches and the mentors that help define the contestants throughout their journey.
Admiration for the show, which is based on a Dutch format, is also validated by the number of awards it has racked up, including its third Critics Choice statuette just the other night for best reality series.
Each season always features a unique array of talent and after making their way through the entire competition with help from their coaches, it’s still surprising to hear from them that they are totally relaxed at this point in the process. Most of us other humans would be a nervous wreck.
“Part of the reason we took this journey is to have a platform,” McDonald said backstage after last night’s two-hour program, which featured each of the four performing three times — an original song, a cover and a duet with their respective coaches. In her first go-round as a coach, and despite her unbridled enthusiasm, Miley Cyrus didn’t land an artist in the finale.
“No matter who wins will deserve it. People don’t see the behind-the-scenes of the behind-the-scenes, like when we get home at 5 a.m. and have to be back at 7,” McDonald said — uncomplainingly — about the program’s grueling work ethic.
McDonald performed “Ave Maria” with her coach Alicia Keys. “She first wanted me to sing it as a solo song but we decided to sing it together. It was a beautiful harmony and unexpected and it felt so comfortable. I wasn’t as nervous as I was for my original song. I didn’t feel rushed. It felt beautiful, like flying,” said McDonald, who at 17 is by far the youngest finalist.
Adam Levine’s singers also shone brightly in their performances with him, Gallagher on Santana’s “Smooth” and Gilman on the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.”
Gallagher, a country artist who began on Blake Shelton’s team but landed with Levine after a showdown with Head — who stands as Shelton’s remaining artist — said the Maroon 5 lead singer has brought out a “rock-ier” edge in him.
“Adam’s influence has been a great experience. I love Blake to death — he’s one of the best country musicians in the world — but I think I might love Adam more,” Gallagher admitted, with a smile. “It might come back to bite me, maybe Blake and I won’t be sharing a stage. Adam has helped me grow so much and I’ll come away from this knowing my decision to play music for a living was the best decision I made.”
Gallagher got emotional when he spoke about his original song, “Pick Any Small Town,” about growing up in Crescent, Pa., a town of about 2,000 people where he said everybody knows everybody else’s business. “That song embodies everything I am, everything I grew up with. It’s very personal and that song is me to a T,” he said.
In keeping with his hometown roots, the country crooner also had a milestone last night with his rendition of the 1982 classic “Jack & Diane,” the first time John Mellencamp has cleared one of his songs to be performed on “The Voice.”
Head also took on a beloved classic with his performance of “At Last,” made famous by Etta James and initially released in 1960. He also performed his original single, “Darlin’ Don’t Go,” as well as his father’s hit song “Treat Her Right” with Shelton.
Roy Head had a huge hit with that song in 1965, but his son kept the performance a secret.
“He’s been my best friend and mentor my whole life,” Head said about his dad, adding, “but he has a big mouth.”
His wife, Misty, has also been a huge influence on him and he said it was for her that he wrote “Darlin’ Don’t Go.” “Sometimes I have a hard time communicating, and it’s easier to put pen to paper. That song got me out of doghouse.”
Head, who appeared on season 6 of “American Idol” but didn’t make it very far in that competition, also talked about his career philosophy.
“Ever since I’ve had children, it’s changed the way I look at things,” he said. “Whenever you do something out of a selfish desire it doesn’t really work. If you believe in something you are passionate about, you should pursue it to the ends of the earth.”
That could also be a description of life and career philosophy for Gilman, who found country music success as a child star at the ripe young age of 11, becoming the youngest singer to have a Top 40 hit on the country music charts.
But the Rhode Island native faded from the limelight when his voice changed. Now 28 years old, he’s been fighting for a second chance the past few years. Even after naysayers in the music business repeatedly told him it wouldn’t happen, it’s clear that he’s earned another shot at stardom.
“I sat for countless years in front of people and they said no,” he recalled. “I had one person telling me for 45 minutes why I wouldn’t make it, and I wondered why was I so psychotic to think she was wrong. That was three years ago and it was here in LA, and I hope she’s watching.”
The virtuoso singer has wowed audiences with renditions of power ballads including Celine Dion’s “I Surrender” a few weeks ago, and Levine has noted that Gilman tends to a favor songs made famous by females.
“The men don’t do those huge ballads,” Gilman said. “I heard these songs and wanted to hear them in a male fashion.” He talked about one of his childhood idols, Barbra Streisand, and how he would love to perform with her.
“At 7, I begged my grandmother to get a tape, the kind you put in the VCR, a Barbra Streisand tape, and she came up on a staircase with the whole orchestra beneath her and I wanted that,” he said, and related it to his performance of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” an emblematic song that he performed with power and emotion.
“I was not racing today,” Gilman said about his performance of the iconic song. “I was able to sing and let go. It was a moment I won’t forget. You have to be present, and I didn’t think I was going to cry, and I wanted to wait until the end. Otherwise, you’ve just got to let it out.”
And we will close with this prediction: There will be more tears tonight.
(“The Voice” finale airs Tuesday, Dec. 13, on NBC at 9 p.m. ET/PT.)