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110 Schanck Road | Freehold, NJ

By Bobby Olivier

Nearly three years ago, America watched Cassadee Pope crawl out on a limb.

The 23-year-old singer had left her touring pop-punk band Hey Monday in hopes of a solo career, and when it didn’t take off like she’d hoped, she tried out for NBC’s singing contest “The Voice.”

In a September 2012 “blind audition” episode, millions saw a dumb-founded Pope cry as all four of the competition’s judges applauded her vibrant rendition of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.”

Three months later, Pope was the talent show’s third-season champion, following a quick transition to an image that favored a mix of country and pop music.

Friday night, a few-hundred fans enjoyed Pope’s full, three-year transformation, to a successful crossover artist traveling with a crop of bright songs, off her 2013 debut “Frame By Frame” and a few set to appear on her coming sophomore effort.

Amid her endlessly soaring vocals, Pope was charismatic and gracious for the iPlay America crowd in Freehold, as she headlined her first concert as a 26-year-old (Friday was her birthday).

But the Florida singer is no stranger to New Jersey – she played the state last week, in an opening spot on country vet Darius Rucker’s show at Borgata Festival Park in Atlantic City.

Of course, this show – her show – was considerably more intimate, and gratifying for fans who populated the less-than-half-filled venue.

HIGHLIGHTS

– When most of America saw Pope last, she stood victorious on “The Voice” because frankly, she produced the season’s strongest and most unique instrument. She was a deserving champion, but through 12 weeks in the national spotlight, her chops were not always pristine. Like her competitors, she too had some off-key moments throughout the show.

This was not the case Friday, though, as every phrase, run and sky-scraping belt were unleashed with effortless, pitch-perfect precision. Although Pope was a professional musician before her TV stint, she’s improved her live performances significantly since 2012. Could it have been too polished, though? A little grit or rasp couldn’t hurt.

– Pope’s sound is labeled pop-country, akin to her fellow female powerhouses Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. But Pope certainly skews more toward pop – her four-piece band featured no banjos, fiddles or lap steel guitars, and the West Palm Beach native spoke with no twangy accent. She traded cowgirl boots for heels and wore a black crop top and high waist flower-print shorts. Essentially, she looked like any other 26-year-old wandering around New Jersey’s malls Friday night.

But a few tracks off “Frame By Frame” caught the Shania Twain crossover vibe, including the up-tempo tunes “Cinematic” and her lively closer “Good Times.” Twenty years later, so many artists still aim to toe that inter-genre line as gracefully as the Canada’s country queen.

– In addition to her new, empowering single “I Am Invincible,” Pope tried out two fresh songs on the small crowd. The passionate ballad “Let Me Go” was undeniably compelling – the songwriting was a strong as anything off her debut and the tune’s hearty belts incited big cheers. The bouncier, “just be yourself” anthem “Alien” was fun, but got tangled in what Pope admitted to be a mouthful of lyrics.

– To break up what could have been a slightly monotonous set otherwise, Pope tapped two covers: The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” The former was decent if not a little too straightforward, but Pope seemed more engaged on the second tribute. Viewers saw her duet the song in 2012 with her “Voice” coach Blake Shelton.

– Pope endeared herself to the Jersey audience early with a few Garden State name-drops. “New Jersey has always had a special place in my heart,” she said, and noted past performances at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville and the now-defunct monster festival The Bamboozle. She didn’t mention, though, that when she rocked the fest in 2009 and 2010, she was still leading Hey Monday.

In that same vein, and this may just be a personal gripe, but will Pope ever work any of those catchy, pop-punk tunes back into her set? She’s not likely to anytime soon, but at least “Everybody Sings,” a buoyant sing-along off “Frame By Frame,” feels like it could have fit with her old band.

For what it’s worth, Hey Monday’s go-to ballad “Candles” (it was covered on”Glee”!) could easily be countrified. Make it happen!