March 24, 2011 08:30 AM

It was a night of Motown – music that, in the words of Steven Tyler, inspires “the rhythm of the kiss” – and also one of the most important nights of the season: The top 10 that will be announced Thursday go out on the American Idol tour.

The performance caliber was pretty high – the word “pitchy” was not heard all evening.

Jacob Lusk, who’s always quivery with soul and gospel, sang “You’re All I Need to Get By” – and prompted Steven to walk up from the judges’ table and hug him. Then his grandmother hugged him – Jacob’s, not Steven’s – and Ryan Seacrest invited everyone in the front row to do the same. Jacob held back this time – about time, actually – and he still had enough trills and licks to deliver a big performance without going over the top. Randy was so excited he came close to spontaneously combusting.

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In the recording booth, Casey was instructed to rein it in, too, and he certainly tried to on “Heard It Through the Grapevine” – with the difference that he sounded reined it. The rhythm was almost a march. But our three judges were happy: Steven called him the “perfect entertainer.” Randy and Jennifer Lopez praised him as a true original. “You can only do you, and that you is great,” Randy said.

Wouldn’t you have cried tears of joy if your grade-school teachers had told you that?

Thia, saying she wanted to showcase her up-tempo side, finally clicked with a pop song on “Heat Wave.” She threw in the most charming little “ooooooo.” “It was great to see you let loose,” Jennifer said. “I need you to dig even deeper.” Steven’s take: “Just great. I’m good with it.”

Ah, but how did the country kids do?

Lauren had a surprisingly good time with “You Keep Me Hanging On” – completely confident, but light-hearted. “You ripped that song another beauty mark,” said Steven. (Interesting!)

Scotty, introduced by harmonica, made “For Once in My Life” sound like old Glenn Campbell singing “Gentle on My Mind.” Jennifer didn’t think it was his best performance, but the judges all love his low notes, which perhaps put one in mind of a bear reaching down into a tree trunk to scoop up honey. Or perhaps not. “Is the voice inside your head that deep, as well?” Ryan asked.

Pia started off uncertainly on “All in Love Is Fair” before settling into the broad river of sound that has been her specialty. Jennifer faulted her only for lacking the right performance dynamic (so far), and Randy complained that he’s tired of all the power ballads. Steven, who apparently thought such quibbles were irrelevant, called her “the closest thing to a star” this season.

Stefano was in typically buttery good voice with “Hello,” although he hit the high notes with such keyed-up emotion he seemed to be wincing instead of singing. Jennifer made the sensible point that his intensity seemed more willed than interpretative. All the judges essentially agreed. But I doubt the performance will knock him out of the show.

Paul has the least Idol-like voice in all 10 seasons – Steven compared him to Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. I still say Cat Stevens, but never mind. He performed a soft-rock “Tracks of My Tears” with acoustic guitar. “When you sing tender, at the very end – oh my God, dude!” said Randy. “It’s so infectious.”

Naima sang “Dancing in the Streets,” and sensibly took the chance to throw in some dancing. Her voice, which isn’t as smooth (or slick) as the other singers, was in much better shape this week, too. I believe Steven’s praise was something along the lines of “It was e-to-the-z oo tweedlee-dee.” Even Randy was pleased. “Very smart tonight.”

James wrapped things up singing “Living in the City.” Well, he’s the most consistent of them all, and the audience applause went on much longer than usual. He’s so in-your-face, I’m always concerned he may step out of my TV – but why deny his talent? “You are serious business up there,” said Jennifer.

Haley never sounds especially contemporary, so she was in luck after a few rough weeks. Her version of “You Really Got a Hold on Me” brought out what Randy called her inner Janis Joplin. Steven told her, “You don’t look a day over fabulous.” Frankly, I think that bluesy growl the judges encourage is actually why she keeps ending up near the bottom. She may be there again this week.

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