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March 4, 2012 | by  | in Arts Music |
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A Question of Soul

Mayer Hawthorne is not a name that screams of Detroit or of neo-soul music, but on a rainy Wellington Wednesday evening he got up on stage and made it clear that a bespectacled white boy in a cardigan can indeed jump. If you’re not familiar with the name you are by no means alone. While causing quite a stir in the States and despite having headlined Splore in 2011, his name has yet to particularly ring out. 

At the beginning of his set, Hawthorne strolled out nonchalantly in front of his effortlessly cool four-piece backing band and proclaimed to the braying crowd that they were going to “put on a show, not a concert”. This is exactly what Hawthorne and his accomplices delivered, a heart-pumping, exhilarating and frankly quite sensual set of smooth and exceptionally tight soul and funk. The band was clearly comfortable playing with each other and exhibited a clear sense of fun in their music. However, this only seemed genuine in the isolated moments where they were allowed to jam and solo inside what seemed like a set list cast in rigid steel. The musicianship on show was absolutely excellent and superbly smooth, but I was constantly set on edge by the fact that that this professionalism had been achieved through the sacrifice of the music itself. Apart from ‘Green Eyed Love’, a hazy ballad about the relationship between absinthe and its drinker, and the break up ballad ‘Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out’, the songs all sounded identical and thoroughly played to death. The real pity was that Hawthorne is clearly an excellent songwriter and musician, but he failed to exhibit those talents on the stage at San Francisco Bathhouse. As one friend said to me it could have been easily have been any other musician singing the vocals and it would not have altered the gig particularly.

This may seem harsh on Hawthorne, but the hijinks of the band, swinging the instruments from side to side in unison like happy clappy zombies, proved equal part horrific and dreamlike. About halfway through the show I felt like I was in a form of purgatory, stuck in a musical loop that kept repeating and repeating, to the point where either hysteria or crippling boredom were about to take control.

In the second half of the show, however, Hawthorne began to redeem himself by immersing himself in the songs and allowing his musicians’ virtuosity to shine out. The latter part of the show also featured more works from Hawthorne’s first album, A Strange Arrangement, which carried a lot more gravitas and punch than the pieces from his recent album, How Do You Do. The live incarnations of these songs illustrate that Hawthorne’s approach to performance and audience expectations have evolved alongside the growth of his support base. The older songs were looser, less manicured; all in all far more musical. Whether this reflects a neurosis of Hawthorne’s, in terms of a lack of faith in the new material, or a reflection on the way he is changing as a musician, it was disappointing to see the new songs falter rather than fly.

This said, Hawthorne is a natural showman and he had a near packed house eating out of his hand. He managed to maintain a laid back rapport with the audience and put on exactly what they wanted; a funky, sensuous and jubilant show. The downside is that in his desire to create this experience, Hawthorne checked the essence of what makes him an interesting and vibrant musician at the door.

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