Arts Desk

Afro-Blue Makes The Sing-Off Top 5…But Just Barely


As beautifully as they performed it, Afro-Blue's take on Tom Petty's "American Girl" on last night's The Sing-Off was misguided from the start.

The group's intro video reminded us that the judges have called out the Howard group repeatedly for overcomplicating their arrangements. But from the moment they began their rock submission (for "Rock and Country Week"), it was already apparent they hadn't done much to simplify. The women in the group sang a multipart harmony over the men's double bass and double percussion parts; it settled briefly into repeated vamps behind Danielle Withers' effervescent lead, but as they built to the chorus the harmonies swelled and became something close to fugal, and their turnaround incorporated an extended quote from "The Star Spangled Banner." ("The land of the free, and the home of the...American girl.")

That, as Ben Folds pointed out, was their most obvious mistake. "Keep your eye and your ear on...what the song's about," he admonished them. "The national anthem bit didn't have anything really to do with the song." But then came deeper and more integral criticism: While they shouldn't dumb themselves down, he said, "You don't want to underestimate the power of a simple song."

Folds' was the most perceptive commentary. Sara Bareilles and Shawn Stockman both gave notes on the group's lack of connection with the material—which, to this writer, felt unfair. Afro-Blue have made it no secret that they're a jazz group and nearly always out of their comfort zone on The Sing-Off; clearly, though, they did their best to engage with, and be engaging with, a song for which they have little frame of reference. (Especially Withers, who sincerely worked the "young girl dreaming of a larger world" angle.)

Given that, you'd be forgiven for fearing their country song would doom them. Instead, it saved them. Lady Antebellum's "I Need You Now" was everything that "American Girl" should have been: The accompaniment was simple and unadorned (but deceptively complex), and stayed out of the way of the impassioned lead by Christie Dashiell and Trenton Cokley. There was no doubt about their engagement, either; it was a beautiful, heartfelt performance that left at least two members (Mariah Maxwell and Integriti Reeves) in tears. "That was really special," said Bareilles. "That's gonna be a moment that people come back and remember about this show. It was a really triumphant moment for you, Afro-Blue"

It wasn't triumphant enough to keep them out of a nailbiting Bottom Two this week. But it was enough to keep them from going home—a dubious distinction that went to L.A.'s Delilah, a group of all-female veterans from past Sing-Off seasons (and one that this writer has long thought was living on borrowed time). It was Afro-Blue's second time in three weeks in the Bottom Two, though, which is worrisome. Here's hoping they dazzle next week when the top five contestants compete.

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  • Keanna Faircloth

    Thanks so much for this insightful review!! Go Afro Blue!!!

  • Ida Malone Jackson

    I completely disagree with the judges and your comments. I loved the ending to the American Girl song! It was creative genius the way they connected the land of the free and home of the...American girl. They (the judges) have "dumbed" them down with their non-constructive criticisms. All they did was confuse them and almost rob them of who they are – a professional and unique group with a distinctly different sound that can only be associated with Afro Blue. I offer this advice to them. Be who you are and continue to make every song yours! The judges are not always right – Simon/Jennifer Hudson and Star Search/Sinbad, Drew Carey, etc are living proof of that!

  • Brize

    Totally agree about Delilah. They've had numerous (admittedly) minor harmony and pitch glitches in past weeks and seemed to me to be technically less accomplished than at least two groups that were previously eliminated. My guess is that one of the two all-maale college groups goes out next week. My opinion is that Afro-Blue has a good shot at making it to the finals, as does Pentatonix.

  • DinoDen

    I believe that Ben Folds has an alternative agenda. He keeps reffering to "not what you would expect from jazz", "you seem so nice and humble, not what you would expect.." , "this is over our heads..". To me he is judging them off of his inferiority complex with jazz, his assumption that excellent people can not be nice, and his assumption that the "dumb people" will not enjoy this group. Any one can listen to them and understand that Afro Blue is pleasing to the ears. Ben folds is a dis info agent.

  • RealMusician

    It is hilarious that the talent level, singing ability, and arrangement of Afro-blue is even being compared to the other groups on the show. This is what you have to think about. There are vocal groups around the country who can watch these other groups and pretty much do the same thing. However, it would be an extreme challenge for any group to attempt to sing any one of the arrangements of Afro-Blue. This is not Glee nor a sing-a-long. I respect the difficulty the bring. It is refreshing and inspiring for any singer, song writer, and arranger. If you don't believe, watch the other groups faces as Afro-Blue sings. They are either cheering the heads of in amazement of their talent, or bitting the nails in fear hopping Afro-blue fails. I hope they win. Unfortunately this is a TV and not a talent contest. If it were a talent contest, they would have won after their American Boy performance! And you know I'm right!