It's been pretty cool watching Sam Woolf over the past few months.
He was just a fairly normal Bradenton teenager who wanted to be a musician. He was playing for free at MacAllisters Grill & Tavern in Lakewood Ranch. Nice-looking kid, really pleasant voice, seemed a little shy.
He told the people at MacAllisters that he was going on vacation. The next they heard about him was when people from "American Idol" called and asked if they could film some scenes of Woolf performing there. He had auditioned for "Idol" in Boston, where he was studying in a summer program at the Berklee College of Music. No one from "Idol" was talking, and they prevented anyone from getting anywhere near Woolf to ask him. But the logical assumption was that he made the cut and was going to be featured fairly prominently on the show.
In past week or so, he's played two concerts in the Bradenton area. He arrived in a limo and had an entourage. And out of thousands of people who auditioned to be on "American Idol" this season, almost all of whom had reason to believe they had some serious talent, Sam Woolf is in the top 30. (Actually, at the moment he's in the top 31 thanks to a stupid twist added to Wednesday's show.)
It's easy to be cynical about anything that happens on "reality" shows, but still, Woolf's run has been fun to watch.
He showed the judges and the public on this past Wednesday's "Idol" episode that he can do more than sing credible versions of Ed Sheeran and John Mayer songs. He took a chance by performing a song he wrote, and it was good. Not good-for-a-17-year-old, but just plain good. Worse songs than his have sold millions of records. People have had decent careers without ever recording a song significantly better.
Other contestants who performed original songs got the boot and
even got ridiculed. Judges commented that one contestant's song sounded like a public service announcement, and that another's was a rip-off of "Sweet Home Alabama."
But even if you don't care about reality TV competitions or popular music or talented teenage kids, Sam Woolf's run on "Idol" is a cool thing for Bradenton.
The city's in the midst of a remarkably successful campaign to refresh its image, and it's largely been using arts and entertainment to do that. Thanks to Sam Woolf, the name of the city is being mentioned regularly on national TV, and always in a positive way. The legions of teenage girls who are swooning for Sam are no doubt googling Bradenton to find out where in Florida it might be, and trying to talk their parents into taking vacations here. Maybe, if Woolf makes it big, we won't have to put up much longer with people from out of state pronouncing it "Bradington."
That may not seem like much, but it's a lot. By comparison, Tampa has spent a billion dollars of tax money for a football team that has done absolutely nothing to help its reputation, unless you think being wrongly characterized as the strip club capital of America is a good thing.
The competition on this season's "Idol" is tougher than it's been in years, according to people who follow the show, and Sam Woolf still has to beat 29 really talented and charismatic people over the next several weeks if he's going to win.
Every week he stays on is a huge victory for him -- and a small but significant one for Bradenton.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.