Page 2 of 2 Previous
Until Reed Grimm sat down behind a drum kit on "American Idol" two weeks ago, the show's 18 million viewers probably didn't know he's also a talented percussionist. Unless, of course, they happen to be among the Minnesota and Wisconsin rock fans who've seen his band Shoeless Revolution perform.
"He's a long way from the Cabooze, that's for sure," laughed Grimm's mom, Colleen Raye.
Jordis Unga's many followers in her native Twin Cities also know some things that the 11 million other viewers of NBC's "The Voice" have yet to learn. For starters, this is not her first TV competition. Also, she said she's "been through the wringer" since her last time in front of the cameras -- which she also believes is to her advantage.
"I believe I'm hungrier and in a stronger place emotionally to do this," said Unga.
Unlike most contestants on TV's popular sing-off shows (including North Mankato "Idol" hopeful Shelby Tweten, age 18), Grimm and Unga head toward the battle rounds this week with legitimate stage experience. Each has eked it out for years in musty bars and boozy nightclubs -- you know, the places singers used to go to make it big before "American Idol."
Grimm and Unga are no overnight sensations. However, their sensational runs on two of the biggest reality shows can literally come to an end overnight, something another Twin Cities music vet knows all too well.
"Milk as much TV time out of it as you can," advised Tim Mahoney, who gigged hard in local bars for 15 years only to get kicked off "The Voice" after two episodes last season.
Mahoney wasn't the first Minnesota musician who earned just a few minutes of TV fame after years on stage. Jesse Langseth, kid sister of Jonny Lang, was eliminated a week into the semifinals on "American Idol" in 2009. Jazz-pop vocalist Sophia Shorai, a regular at the Dakota and other local supper clubs, made it to Hollywood but was quickly cut last season on "Idol."
So does a musician with real experience have an advantage on these reality shows? Mahoney still thinks so.
"Playing in clubs is a totally different world, but it certainly helps you prepare," he said. "If nothing else, it helps you deal with the stress of it all."
Two weeks ago, "Idol" viewers saw Grimm calling home to his mother when the tension got to him. A professional singer herself, Raye firmly believes her son's experience on local stages gives him a leg up.
"He's a real musician who knows how to arrange a song his way and make it dynamic," she said. "He knows how to work an audience."
Unga: 'Legitimate career path'
Grimm, 26, has been singing and drumming around the Upper Midwest for almost four years with Shoeless Revolution, whose rhythmic, funked-up rock sound and rowdy songs earned them sizable audiences locally at the Cabooze, Gluek's and Mayslack's and at regional jam-band festivals.
Unga, 29, worked Twin Cities clubs in the early '00s in the hard-rock band Fighting Tongs. She continued to play local gigs after her run on the CBS series "INXS: Rock Star" in 2005, where she came four bodies away from being the replacement singer in the hit '80s band.
The "Rock Star" exposure led to a series of demo-recording deals for Epic Records and another record company in Los Angeles, but the work never panned out into a full album.
"It was frustrating to be tied up for so long, and not have anything come of it," Unga said. "But it's the sort of thing that has happened to so many musicians before me, so I tried not to let it get to me."
Each singer had no qualms about crossing over to the reality-TV world to try to reach the next level, even though some might see it as selling out.
TV shows have become "more of a legitimate career path," Unga said. "I mean, look at me: I've had strong deals with major record labels that a lot of musicians would've killed for in years past, and those clearly didn't work out. Being on TV has been a lot more productive for me toward getting my voice heard and my name out there."
JORDIS UNGA, 29
Grimm: 'No inhibitions'
Grimm has been working toward his "Idol" run for five years. He auditioned four previous times and sought advice from a former bandmate, Caleb Hawley, who was a short-lived "Idol" contestant last year.
The fact that Grimm finally got through auditions -- and thus had to put Shoeless on hold -- didn't shock the rest of the band, said keyboardist Jack Sabol-Williams: "It's something he's wanted for a long time, and we always knew there was a good possibility he'd make it."
They'll watch "Idol" each week with bated breath. If Grimm makes it into the top 10, he will wind up on the "American Idol" concert tour and thus be tied up for most of the year. If he wins or comes close, he might be contractually obligated to quit the band. Even if he's eliminated, he likely can't perform until the season is over.
Whatever happens, "I think people will see Reed isn't just on there to be an instant pop star," Sabol-Williams said. "He's a serious musician with true talent. So we only stand to benefit from his exposure."
After getting voted off "The Voice" last year, Mahoney said he reaped enough rewards to outweigh any negatives. He's due a little money from iTunes sales of the show's recordings and earned a lot of attention online. When he went back to his old gigs, it didn't hurt seeing the words "From NBC's 'The Voice' " plastered on ads.
Well, it hurt a little.
"I've been constantly performing around here for 15 years, so it's a little annoying to be recognized for 15 minutes of TV fame," Mahoney said with a laugh. "But I'll take it."
REED GRIMM, 26