Laith Al-Saadi won’t be returning to Ann Arbor crowned “The Voice,” but that doesn’t matter to residents and the local music community.
“In our hearts, he’s already won,” said Barb Chaffer Authier, marketing director of the Ann Arbor folk-music venue The Ark, where Al-Saadi frequently performs.
Alisan Porter won season 10 of NBC’s reality TV show, earning $100,000 and a record deal with Universal Music Group, and breaking the streak of male winners since season 5. Al-Saadi, an Ann Arbor native, came in fourth place.
While the judges — Pharrell, Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and Christina Aguilera — picked the contestants based on their voice, it’s the fans who had until noon Tuesday to vote for the winner.
Al-Saadi, a blues and classic rock guitarist and vocalist, teamed with Levine; third-place finalist was Hannah Huston with coach Pharrell; runner-up Adam Wakefield was coached by Shelton; and Porter was coached by Aguilera.
During the show, Al-Saadi said he “made the right choice” by picking Levine as his coach. “I don’t think I could have chosen another coach who would have given me the freedom to let me be myself,” he said.
The feeling was mutual. “Laith and I definitely connect in a very special way… I don’t know if I’ll have that with another contestant again,” Levine said.
On Tuesday, Al-Saadi paired up with his idol, guitarist Joe Walsh, for a duet for the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s “Rocky Mountain Way.”
The other duets: CeeLo Green with Huston, Alison Krauss with Wakefield and Jennifer Nettles with Porter. Little Big Town, Sia, Zayn and Ariana Grande were also guest performers.
While Al-Saadi, 38, has now reached the national spotlight, he is well-known on small Michigan music stages, having played at the 2015 Ann Arbor Folk festival and the Magic Bag in Ferndale. It’s hard to miss him at local venues: he’s played over 300 gigs a year for the last 20 years.
“He’s certainly a crowd and hometown favorite, but he’s kind of like that well-kept secret. It’s fun to see it being shared with the rest of the world,” Chaffer Authier said.
Al-Saadi started singing with the Boychoir of Ann Arbor at 4 and playing the guitar at 13. He formed his first blues band, Blue Vinyl, at 15.
His music career kicked off at Community High School in Ann Arbor, where his band leader encouraged him and other students to perform around town. Al-Saadi told the Michigan Daily last year that his jazz group ended up at Weber’s Inn and University of Michigan receptions.
Though Al-Saadi said they “didn’t make a lot of money,” they found “the work was out there if we hustled and got it. That really resonated strongly because I’ve never had a real job since I turned 16 and was able to drive.”
Since then, Al-Saadi has opened for Buddy Guy, Son Seals, Taj Mahal and even B.B. King. He released his first solo album, “Long Time Coming,” in 2005, followed by “In the Round” in 2008. His 2013 release, “Real,” featured Jimmy Vivino, the guitarist for Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” band.
In his blind audition on “The Voice,” Al-Saadi wasn’t shy about showing off his guitar riffs.
After Shelton and Levine both buzzed to be Al-Saadi’s coach, he proudly told the impressed judges, “I got my degree in guitar from the University of Michigan.”
Ellen Rowe, University of Michigan chair of the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation, directed Al-Saadi in the early 2000s when he played in the UM jazz ensemble. (The School of Music, Theatre & Dance has a good track record of “The Voice” contestants. In 2013, alum Michelle Chamuel came in second and senior Daniel Passino made this season’s top 10.)
“He was very much like he is as you see him on ‘The Voice,’ ” Rowe said.
“He’s a very talented blues guitarist. I think it took a couple of years before we realized what a great singer he was because he didn’t do that much singing in our program. I remember being surprised the first time I heard him sing and thought, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’ ”
Whether he’s performing rock or blues, “he just goes over great with the crowd,” says Willy Wilson, publicist of The Magic Bag. The Ferndale venue also is where he plays his annual birthday show in the fall.
“One good thing about this competition is it’s called ‘The Voice,’ so it’s about really singing, and he’s such an amazing singer and performer as opposed to when you look at the American Idols, where it’s more about the package,” Wilson said. “They get the cute girl or cute guy. We get the guy who’s a little edgier and has a tattoo ... And this is about the voice.”
Wilson added that Al-Saadi is well thought of by local musicians and has the support of the community.
“It’s not like, ‘Hey, it’s just some guy from Detroit or Ann Arbor. Yay, let’s vote for him!’ He’s played with everybody. He’s been involved in the Detroit Blues Society and events. He’s done so many benefits and things around town. It’s good to see somebody like that getting the recognition as opposed to some person who’s from the area. He’s part of the area and part of the music scene fabric.”
On June 9, Al-Saadi is expected to perform in Ann Arbor for the free Sonic Lunch concert series in Liberty Plaza.
While Al-Saadi’s hometown supporters were rooting for him to win the finale, no one is worried that famewill change him.
“It’s great to see him representing himself as the artist that he is,” Rowe said. “He’s obviously very different than the other finalists, and I’m just proud he’s not trying to be someone he isn’t.”
Before the finale, Al-Saadi tweeted his gratitude for all his fans:
“I want to thank everyone who has supported me on this journey from the bottom of my heart. You all are amazing. I am humbled and honored.”