'American Idol' judges still like Bradenton's Sam Woolf

He performs for the first time since they saved him from elimination

mclear@bradenton.comApril 10, 2014 

For a few minutes last week, it appeared that Bradenton's Sam Woolf wouldn't even be on this week's episode of "American Idol."

He got the fewest votes, but after he sang for his "Idol" life, the judges overruled the public, and Woolf survived.

On Wednesday, Woolf seemed to please the judges yet again -- twice.

Only eight contestants remain out of some 75,000 who auditioned. On this week's performance show, each contestant sang two songs, one as a duet with another finalist and one solo.

All the songs came from the 1980s -- before any of the finalists were born.

Woolf's duet was the first of the show. He and Alex Preston, the contestant who's been stylistically closest to Woolf throughout the finals, strummed guitars and sang Michael Jackson's "The Girl Is Mine."

Afterward, he thanked the judges for rescuing him last week and said he has spent the past week practicing harder than ever and concentrating on connecting with the audience.

"You know what? I could see it right there," judge Jennifer Lopez said.

Last week, after Woolf performed Ed Sheeran's "Lego House," judge Harry Connick Jr. had told him that connecting with the audience would boost his performance, and apparently Woolf took the advice seriously.

About halfway through Thursday's show came Woolf's time to go solo. Before he performed live, the home audience saw a clip of him rehearsing Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," with guidance from season 7 "American Idol" winner David Cook.

But within the 24 hours before the show, he changed the arrangement, deciding to forgo accompaniment from the "Idol" band and perform essentially solo, playing guitar and joined only by an off-camera backing singer. He sat on a stool, surrounded by girls who gazed at him adoringly.

The gamble paid off. The judges loved the arrangement and his performance and gave him some of the most positive critiques they've offered in several weeks, and some of the gentlest criticism they gave any contestant this week.

"Listening to your voice is such a treat for me," Lopez said. "I just love the way you sing."

Lopez said the performance was Woolf's most heartfelt thus far.

Connick said that Woolf has gotten better every week -- a comment that the judges have given several times though the competition. But he said he still thought Woolf could connect more with the audience.

"You looked in the camera almost the entire time," he said. "You're surrounded by these beautiful young girls. Look at them. It's OK to look at them."

Connick advised Woolf to look up clips of Rick Nelson to find ways to tweak his onstage charisma.

"He's not dissimilar to you," Connick said. "Watch what he does. Something may click for you if you do that."

At this point in the competition, the judges can only offer advice; they can't affect the outcome. Whether Woolf stays on "Idol" or comes home to Bradenton is entirely up to voters. The judges can't save another contestant this season.

So one finalist will be eliminated at the end of Thursday's half-hour results show, which starts at 9 p.m. on Fox.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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