PORTSMOUTH — Performing a rendition of Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," city native Sam Robbins stood before millions of viewers Monday night when his blind audition for NBC's "The Voice" aired on national television.
And while Robbins performance didn't turn the judges' chairs, his run in the competition will continue. This season, "The Voice" launched its first online "Comeback Stage" companion series featuring country music singer Kelsea Ballerini as the show's fifth coach. Robbins, along with five other comeback artists, will compete for a chance to reenter "The Voice's" main competition when the live shows begin in November.
Robbins, 22, graduated from Portsmouth High School in 2015, and now attends Berklee College of Music in Boston. What began as a standing ovation at Dondero School's own "American Idol" years ago, Robbins now performs around 200 shows a year throughout New England. He's a mix of "James Taylor, John Denver and Jim Croce," he said, "a classic singer/songwriter in the modern era."
On Monday, during the audition previously taped in June, Robbins performed for this year's judges Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson. In the blind audition round, the judges face away from the performer, and press a button if they decide they want them on their team, turning their chair around to pair the voice with the person.
While Levine called Robbin's voice "stunning," and Hudson said it was a "flawless performance," the judges said they were waiting for more "movement," showcase of range and another gear of intensity.
"You are a very, very talented guy," Levine told Robbins. As Robbins exited the stage, the show announced Ballerini had picked him to continue in the comeback series.
In the taped introduction to Robbin's audition, he strummed a guitar inside Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, strolled around Market Square, sat on the Prescott Park docks, and played an outdoor show at Portsmouth Gas Light.
Robbins said after playing 500-plus shows over the last two-and-a-half-years, he was ready to take on the "huge platform" that a show like "The Voice" offers a musician.
"It's been amazing, especially last night and into this morning," Robbins said in a Tuesday phone interview while taking a break between classes at Berklee. "Immediately I got 100 texts right when (the audition) happened last night. The outpouring of love especially from the community around the Seacoast has been absolutely incredible, more than I ever thought really."
Prior to making it to the big stage for the blind audition, Robbins did a callback round in Boston, where he played James Taylor. "I thought they were going to throw me out the door," he laughed. But instead, he was moved along to the next round.
Robbins noted he was the first singer to perform Jim Croce on 15 seasons of "The Voice."
"It was amazing to be able to be my own artist on the show," he said. "That was a thing I was freaked out about, that a lot of artists freak out about, that they're going to try and change you. For the entire process, I got to drive the bus. That's why I was proud of what I did, even though when I got off stage I was obviously disappointed, I was so happy to have represented who I am as an artist."
When the audition aired Monday night, Robbins said the Surf Club in Rye, a venue he frequently plays, reopened to hold a watch party. He mentioned Book & Bar in downtown Portsmouth as another favorite spot to play.
"So much of my audition and the backstory behind me was based behind Portsmouth and the community and growing up in such a supportive group of people," he said. "I'm very lucky, not everybody has that."
Robbins recalled being 15 years old and recording himself on Garage Band in the Portsmouth High School computer lab.
"I think I want my music to be an extension of myself," Robbins said. "I'm a pretty open book, a personable guy. I like telling stories and talking a lot. In my performances and in my songs, I want people to be with me on the ride."
The "Comeback Stage" series, available on YouTube, NBC.com and Instagram TV, has already been filmed and will air concurrently with the weekly episodes of "The Voice." Robbins knows the outcome, but he can't say. He encouraged people to watch, and keep an eye out for local performances in the coming year. On June 8, for example, he'll headline a show at The Music Hall Loft, and in January will be at 3S Artspace.
"Thanks to everybody, it's been amazing," Robbins said. "I definitely don't think I would be here, without the support of the community."