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No-show coach Niall Horan has already been replaced on ‘The Voice’ — by two coaches

When O.G. coach , who’d drawn a massive, devoted country audience to The Voice and had coached six country singers to victory over the past 12 years, finally retired from the show, much ado was made about his replacement: an even bigger country music legend, . On Monday this week, as the Season 24 Knockout Rounds commenced, The Voice upped the country star power by welcoming Mega-Mentor Wynonna Judd. And on Tuesday, yet two other Nashville veterans arrived to make up for Blake’s still-felt absence.

Country duo Dan + Shay are set to make Voice history next season, in spring 2024, when they become the first twosome to join the coaching panel full-time (presumably sitting in some sort of buddy-system, sidecar-style double-chair). But they showed up a whole season early this week, when current panelist Niall Horan couldn’t be make it to his team’s Knockouts rehearsals, to coach Team Niall’s contestants instead.

Niall’s absence, which he explained was due to his tour schedule, was glaring and just plain odd, considering how gung-ho the reigning-champ coach has acted so far. But Niall is sitting out next season (Season 25’s panel will consist of Dan + Shay, Reba, , and returning Season 23 coach Chance the Rapper), so, as he told Dan + Shay over FaceTime, this week’s mentoring sessions would be “good practice” for the duo.

And Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney were already fitting right in. After Team Niall’s first three Knockout hopefuls took the stage and wowed everyone, John actually exclaimed, “Dan + Shay are coaching the hell outta these artists!” If Niall wants to return to The Voice after his Season 25 hiatus, he just might find himself permanently out of a job.

Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney of Dan + Shay. (NBC)Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney of Dan + Shay. (NBC)

Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney of Dan + Shay. (NBC)

But before we get to Team Niall’s Dan + Shay-coached performances… when we last left the show, on Monday, Team Legend’s Mara Justine had just lost her highly competitive three-way Knockout to Kaylee Shimizu, despite pulling off a spectacular rendition of an extremely challenging song, the Mariah Carey version of Badfinger/Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” But Mara was still in the running, because both and Niall had rushed to steal her, and the episode cliffhangingly ended with Mara deliberating between those two coaches. It seemed likely that Mara would choose Gwen, who’d delivered the more passionate and aggressive sales pitch. But, nope. Mara surprisingly chose Niall instead.

“I thought she was gonna pick you!” a shocked John gasped to Gwen, and Gwen seemed crestfallen over the loss, sighing, “I didn’t know I cared so much! I’m literally having a heart attack right now!” (Side note: Gwen, much like her hyperbolic husband Blake, tends use the word “literally” quite liberally. Viewers can rest assured that she did not go into cardiac arrest Tuesday.)

So, now Mara is an official member of Team Niall… even though she might end up working with Dan + Shay instead, depending on her new coach’s upcoming concert calendar. In the meantime, here’s how Tuesday’s Knockouts panned out:

TEAM NIALL: Nini Iris vs. Azán vs. Olivia Minogue

Self-described “dark pop” artist Nini had the most interesting cover, “Karma Police” (finally a Radiohead reality-show cover that’s not “Creep”!), which she chose herself. And Wynonna approved, loving the masterful way that Nini built the tension, right up to that climactic whistle-note, and explaining, “I’m driven by some of that darkness myself.” Britpop fan Niall seemed thrilled with Nini’s performance, and he probably regretted not being in town earlier to witness her rehearsal in person.

Azán smoldered and sizzled on Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” (I have one word: sexxxxy,” an impressed Wynonna purred during rehearsals), really feeling herself and getting caught up in the moment indeed.

So, the weakest link here was clearly pop singer Olivia, who to her credit took a big off-brand risk with Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life,” but couldn’t quite handle the operatic rock ballad and was caterwauling nearly uncontrollably by the song’s end. Niall ultimately chose the singer whose talents he described as “supernatural.”

WINNER: Nini Iris

TEAM GWEN: Tanner Massey vs. Chechi Sarai vs. Rudi

Nineteen-year-old pretty-boy Tanner started off slow doing Shawn Mendes’s “In My Blood,” but his raw and ramped-up final chorus, when he finally broke loose, was a revelation; Gwen, who only recently became Tanner’s coach after stealing him in the Battles, admitted she didn’t know the kid had it in him, and Wynonna was so moved by Tanner’s performance that it reminded her of how she felt “a year ago when my mom died.”

This three-way’s weakest link was Chechi, who — despite possessing a voice that John called “insane” and Gwen called “that vintage thing,” which seemed tailor-made for the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” – never gained momentum during her sweet and too-laid-back number. Conversely, Rudi appeared to be the obvious standout here, belting Silk Sonic’s “Smokin’ Out the Window,” a badass and attitudinal show-stopper that Gwen called “so swaggy and unexpected” and a “threat to everyone” in the competition.

But then Gwen explained, “This is bizarre. I kind of have a plan. I just want everybody to know that!” — before choosing Tanner. Luckily for Rudi, she had options, because both Niall and Reba swooped in to steal her. Gwen additionally tried to use her Save, explaining that saving Rudi had been her “plan” all along. And luckily for Gwen, all went according to plan.

WINNER: Tanner Massey / SAVED: Rudi stays on Team Gwen

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