LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Crystal Bowersox stormed back against a nervous Lee DeWyze in the “American Idol” performance finale Tuesday, stealing the hearts of the judges and setting up a nail-biting finish to America’s most-watched TV show.
Bowersox, 24, a dreadlocked single mom from Ohio whose energy had been lacking in recent weeks, was the clear judges’ favorite for the 2010 title after her three-song set.
But America’s choice will be revealed Wednesday night after millions of text and telephone votes from around the nation have been counted.
“This is one of your best moments, at a perfect time” judge Randy Jackson told Bowersox after she closed Tuesday’s show with an emotional rendition of the contemporary folk-gospel song “Up to the Mountain.”
“You took that song and you absolutely nailed it,” the usually abrasive Simon Cowell told her after her version of 1990s rock classic “Black Velvet.”
DeWyze, 24, seen as the dark horse of the TV singing show, had been tipped by Cowell to win before Tuesday’s final performances in front of 7,000 fans.
But the bluesy singer and guitarist, who a year ago was working in a Chicago paint store, seemed to have lost some of the confidence that saw him overshadow Bowersox last week.
“I would expect a lot more passion and excitement. That was a kiss on the cheek, when I want a kiss on the lips,” Cowell said of DeWyze’s first effort, “The Boxer.”
The night didn’t improve for DeWyze. Kara DioGuardi felt he “got swallowed up a bit” by U2’s smash hit “Beautiful Day.”
In a major departure for “American Idol,” the original inspirational ballad unveiled in the finale as the winner’s first release was replaced this year by two different cover versions of existing songs -- “Beautiful Day” for DeWyze and “Up to the Mountain” for Bowersox.
Bowersox plays guitar, piano and harmonica and was the early front-runner for the 2010 title and a guaranteed recording contract.
But in recent weeks, judges and fans doubted how much she wanted the media attention and pressure that comes from being crowned “American Idol.”
Bowersox and DeWyze are the last two standing from some 100,000 aspiring pop stars who auditioned last summer around the nation for the Fox TV singing contest.
The first place finisher will get the chance to launch a career like those of previous “Idol” winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.
Now in its 9th season, “American Idol” is still America’s most watched TV show but has seen audiences slip by about 9 percent this year.
In recent weeks, less than 20 million viewers have been tuning in as the contest neared its climax, compared to almost 30 million in 2006.
Wednesday’s two hour finale is expected to include an emotional send-off for Cowell, who announced in January that he was leaving to launch his own talent show “The X-Factor” on Fox in the fall of 2011. No replacement for Cowell has been yet been announced.
Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte