Since its mid-'90s rise and subsequent string of massive R&B radio hits, local quartet Dru Hill has been cherished as a local hero. And over the last few years of inactivity, murmurs of new solo projects or a possible reunion persisted, culminating three weeks ago in an interview on 92Q with all four original members.
But the joyful moment was short-lived, as immortalized in the now-infamous YouTube video, which documents Woody Rock informing the rest of the group, live on the air, that he had no intention of physically participating in the reunion, and the melee that ensued. This week, however, came news that the group would hold a live audition at local nightclub Suite to pick a fourth member to fill Woody's spot and move on with the comeback as planned. And you can bet that every other Baltimore kid that grew up singing along with Dru Hill on the radio came out to take his shot at becoming a member.
Last month was the first time we checked out Suite's Thursday night event, which is usually a showcase for independent artists. This week, however, it was a whole different vibe, and a much more packed house, with 92Q there to support a reboot of the event they tried to pull off a month ago. When we entered the club, the audition was already under way and the room was going nuts for a contestant, the fifth of the night, who was belting out Stevie Wonder's "Lately"--sung in the style of the Jodeci version, of course. We thought that maybe the energy level was going to be that high the whole time, but it turned out that that singer was an early high point, and he remained a crowd favorite throughout the night.
And all four founding members of the group were behind the judges' table, even Woody, who'd evidently patched things up with the guys after the initial on-air tiff and was there to help them pick someone to fill his shoes. Interestingly, there was no sign or mention of Scola, the Baltimore singer who'd replaced Woody the first time he quit the group for a solo gospel career in 1999 and remained on as a fifth member when Woody returned for their last album, 2002's Dru World Order.
Scola, whose local popularity preceded his work with Dru Hill, has continued in recent years with the radio hit "Why You Beefin' With Me" and might just be too wrapped up in his solo career to rejoin the group. And by holding an open audition at a local club, Dru Hill gave a clear message about who they were looking for: an unknown from Baltimore who could sing his ass off, someone in the same position they were 15 years ago.
In just a little over an hour, 19 singers auditioned, each getting three minutes to show his stuff. At first it appeared that there were only about a dozen hopefuls, but every time it looked like the competition was closed up, Nokio would rush over to offer one more guy a chance to compete. The contestants were referred to mainly by number, so we didn't catch many names, but contestant No. 5, the one who made a big impression with "Lately" early in the night, was referred to as Tayo (although we may not be spelling that right). Most of the auditioning singers showed a familiarity with Dru Hill's style, singing one of its early hits or something similar from that era. But contestant No. 19, a teenage kid with dreadlocks, was the only one to dare sing something current, taking on Justin Timberlake's "Until the End of Time," and it was hard to picture him fitting in with the group's style.
One contestant was so shy that he momentarily froze in front of the audience before beginning to sing with the mic almost too far from his face to pick up his voice, although Sisqó appeared appreciative of the fact that the contestant was singing his solo hit "Incomplete." On the opposite end of the spectrum was the contestant who was just a little too confident, singing loudly as soon as the mic was placed in his hand and delivering a labored monologue to introduce himself and insulting another competitor in the process.
After an intermission, Dru Hill brought up four finalists to sing with the group. The tie-breaking measure was to have the contestant harmonize with the group and hit a high note on the bridge to the group's 1996 debut single, "Tell Me." The first three finalists all did a capable job with the challenge, but it was clear they were saving the best for last when Tayo got his chance, and once again completely demolished the competition. After a brief vote by applause, Tayo was crowned the winner, and Woody Rock even handed over a pair of his sunglasses as a way of passing the torch. Sisqó indicated that Tayo is someone he'd already been acquainted with, which bodes well for the newcomer's integration into Dru Hill's established group dynamic. Whether this is the first step on the road to a major comeback or just a footnote in the later years of a once-great group remains to be seen. But on Thursday night, it felt like an exhilarating new beginning for Dru Hill, one that will hopefully outshine its high-profile misstep a few weeks ago.