Last year, Sam Woolf asked the owners of MacAllisters in Lakewood Ranch if they'd let him sing there for free. They said OK, and he set up in a corner of patio and performed for maybe a couple dozen people.
A couple of weeks ago, he performed to a full house at the 7,000-seat Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghampton, N.Y.
He was a lot more nervous, he says, playing at MacAllisters.
"It's cool singing in front of a large crowd of people," he told the Bradenton Herald. "I find in general it's easier to sing in front of a large crowd than a small group."
Woolf was speaking from Windsor, Ontario. He was getting ready for the second arena show of his nascent career.
As almost everyone in the Manatee-Sarasota area knows, the 18-year-old Bradenton singer and recent Braden River High grad, is one of the stars of this year's "American Idol Live!" tour. He earned a spot in the tour, and legions of fervent fans who call themselves the Woolf Pack, with his fifth-place finish in TV's most venerable music competition.
It's thanks to Woolf that the annual tour will be coming to the Bradenton area for the first time. It usually makes stops at the hometowns of all the featured singers, so it's coming Thursday to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota.
It may be the last chance his fans and friends have to see him around town.
"I'll definitely be moving from Florida when I get back," he said. "Probably to Los Angeles, but maybe somewhere else, Nashville or somewhere."
He'll have to leave his grandparents, whom he praised continuously through his "Idol" run, and his dog, Buddy, behind.
On the road
The first show on the tour, he said, was "awesome."
"I feel like it went really well," he said.
He performs solo songs ("Lego House" by Ed Sheeran and "Sail Away" by David Gray, both of which he performed on TV) and ensemble numbers. He also sings backup on songs by some of his buddies on the tour.
Besides Woolf, the tour includes season winner Caleb Johnson, runner-up Jena Irene, Alex Preston, Jessica Meuse, CJ Harris, Malaya Watson, Majesty Rose and MK Nobilette.
Seventh-place finisher Dexter Roberts started the tour, but hasn't been part of the lineup since July 1 and won't be back. Details are sketchy, but Meuse told her Twitter followers that Roberts is sick and has been released from his contract.
As for Woolf, he's concentrating on the tour for now. He's traveling the country on the bus with his "American Idol" live buddies. He gets to explore most of the cities he visits (although he says he won't have any spare time in Florida) and he's listening to the new Sheeran album.
He's also writing songs, and he's "definitely releasing an album," though he doesn't know details yet. (Johnson's first album, "Testify," is due for release on Aug. 12).
College is also in his future. He has a full scholarship to the Berklee School of Music, which is regarded as one of the best in the country, and he's planning to start next year.
For the moment, he's loving his life. He's looking forward to his hometown show, and the one the next night at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. But it's the show he's excited about more than the location.
"I'm looking forward to all the shows, actually," he said.
The Sarasota show is virtually sold out. Organizers are holding some tickets and releasing them occasionally as they get a better idea of how many they need, so people who need tickets should keep checking vanwezel.org, or call the box office at 941-953-3368.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.