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.