If the season 13 premiere of American Idol is any indication, a few things are already clear: The unlucky judge juju is gone, guitar-playing singers will rule Hollywood, and America is likely to be wild about Harry Connick Jr.
With all eyes on the judging panel after last year’s Mariah Carey-Nicki Minaj diva drama, returning judge Keith Urban joined Jennifer Lopez, who’s back after a transformative year away, and the duo not only oozed likeability and rapport but their star power wowed most contestants.
But it was Connick’s humor – along with an impressive group of Boston and Austin contestants (many of whom had no idea who the new judge was) – that was the real star of the night.
“I read your Wikipedia page every night before going to sleep,” Pakistan-born Munfarid Zaidi, 19, told Connick.
“He’s the one,” zinged Urban, prompting Connick to run up and hug a starstruck Zaidi and exclaim, “You know who I am!”
“If you blow us away with the first song, I’d like to pick you up like a baby and hold you,” Connick told the singer, who held up his end up the bargain by singing a hip, jazzy version of Adele‘s “Crazy for You”.
“I see a cradle coming on,” Lopez said, as Zaidi held out his arms and Connick picked him up and cradled him like a newborn.
The newest judge even schooled contestants, and the other judges, on musical basics like the pentatonic scale, asking, “What’s wrong with challenging America?”
However, the real challenge for America this year might be picking an early favorite, as a total of 46 tickets to Hollywood were handed out, many to singers who were allowed for the first time to audition with their guitars.
Standouts included cherubic 17-year-old Sam Woolf, who lives with his grandparents and sang an up-tempo version of Ed Sheeran’s “Lego House.”
“My daughters are going to go absolutely crazy for that kid,” Connick raved, while Woolf’s grandfather said, “This is my amazing boy. He never ceases to amaze me.”
Austin Percario, 17, went against his stage mother’s advice to sing “Titanium,” a performance that prompted Urban to compare his raspy voice to “Justin Bieber at 5 a.m.”
Kaitlyn Jackson, 15, sang a touching original song, “Another Angel,” which she wrote in memory of her grandfather.
Former football player Shanon Wilson, 24, shocked the judges when a tender voice and high, high falsetto came pouring out of his huge body as he sang “I Want You.”
Lopez simply handed Wilson the ticket without a vote.
Malcolm Allen brought out his air guitar and stellar vocals to sing “Superstition,” which earned a “triple yes” from Lopez.
“I’m literally in love with music,” the 19-year-old said. “If I could marry it, I would.”
Savion Wright, 21, who was diagnosed with ADHD and whose guitar his mother credited with saving his life, also sang an original song, the folksy “Hiding in Fear.”
“The other competitors are going to be very intimidated by you,” Connick told Wright, who had waited eight years to audition until he felt he was ready.
And Marialle Sellars, 17, who kicked off the new season of Idol, stunned with an acoustic version of “Grenade” by Bruno Mars.
American Idol continues Thursday night on FOX (8 p.m. ET), with additional Austin auditions and more golden tickets by the Golden Gate Bridge.