Frank Micelotta/Getty
May 07, 2008 12:00 AM

She’s Back Cheers erupted in the Idol studio as former contestant Carly Smithson, in true rock star regalia, strutted to her seat. After the cheers, a line of autograph seekers formed in front of the gone-but-not-forgotten Irish singer. Grammy winning country rockers Rascal Flatts were also in the house, but didn’t take their seats in the audience until midway through the show — they were too busy off to the side watching David Archuleta on the monitor with producer Nigel Lythgoe. Corey the warm-up guy, who is back from his time off to lead us through the breaks, announced the band to the adoration of the audience before they took their seats. Also in the house once again — he just can’t get enough — was Top 16 castoff Luke Menard.

First Thing’s First Paula Abdul‘s second song scandal last week was still fresh on the mind of host Ryan Seacrest (i.e., the producers), as he explained to the audience at the beginning of the show that this time around the judges would critique after each song (rather than after both), then adding, “Everybody clear?” while looking at Paula. The audience, as well as Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell at her side, quickly took the opportunity to chuckle at her expense.

A New Record After David Archuleta delivered an amazing rendition of “Stand By Me,” the audience screamed so loud for so long that Randy couldn’t get a word in edgewise for almost a minute. In the zone, David didn’t notice the young fans eagerly reaching up from the pit for him to touch, as he waited the judges’ feedback. Only then, did Archuleta slap some hands, bow to the cheering crowd and knuckle-knock a bouncer before leaving the stage. But if that wasn’t enough, the 17-year-old later “crushed” (Simon’s word) the competition with his version of Elvis Presley‘s “Love Me Tender.” You guessed it. That sent the studio audience into another round of absolute hysterics. And, according to a family friend, for the first time in his Idol experience, David expressed true interest in making it into the top 3.

What’s Eating Cook? With a pantheon of songs to choose from, David Cook, usually full of surprises, decided on ’80s group Duran Duran‘s “Hungry like the Wolf” for his first song. As if he’d been having second thoughts, Cook seemed lethargic and distant while he performed, missing his usual spark. And when the show went to break, rather than waving to the audience as he usually does, he helped a stagehand with his microphone and sheepishly shuffled off stage. After his second performance of the night, The Who‘s “Baba O’Riley,” Cook received better marks but his demeanor remained sluggish and melancholy. Was something crowding the mind of one of this season’s great? Could he be thinking about how this was the week when his vocal facsimile Chris Daughtry went home in season 5?

For the Fans Syesha Mercado, who has incredibly transformed her style, presence and performances in the last couple weeks, seems to always be thinking of her fans. She told Ryan that meeting them in each city is something she’s looking forward to on the Idols Live Tour this summer. And she should put on a good show. Tuesday, before she rocked the house with Tina Turner‘s classic “Proud Mary,” she entertained the live audience as she practiced her shakes and hops, even throwing her head up and down as her intro played on the monitor above. And sitting on the stool with Ryan before the show comes back from commercial, Syesha did all she could to let her adoring fans in the pit and in the bleachers know that the feeling is mutual by answering questions and returning winks and waves.

Words Get in the Way Jason Castro forgot one of the most famous choruses in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame history: ” … in the jingle-jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you … ” from Bob Dylan‘s classic “Mr. Tambourine Man.” This was after an incredibly poor showing of his first tune, Bob Marley‘s “I Shot the Sheriff,” which was compared to a first round audition. Despite basically tossing the night in the trash after each lukewarm rendition, Castro maintained his cool and hid his emotions, as he stoically strummed his guitar while leaving the stage during the darkened break.

Other Stuff You Didn’t See • Paula running in her dress and high heels from backstage to her seat as the clock was winding down from commercial breaks and things were about to start. She almost missed her mark three breaks in a row. Run, Paula, run!

• Simon giving an awe-struck expression as he watched Paula do her best Tina Turner moves rather than Syesha, who was on the stage performing the song.

• Ryan going into the audience during one of the breaks and grabbing one fan’s “Castro on a Stick” with fake dreads, before using it as a prop when the show started up again.

• Carly Smithson, one of the only standing and clapping for Jason Castro as he sang, “I Shot the Sheriff,” which turned out to be what the judges, including Paula, deemed pretty much his worst performance to date. –Jed DrebenFrank Micelotta/Getty

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