JOE HENRY with NATHAN LAWR and ADAM COTTON at the El Mocambo, October 18. Tickets: $12.50. Attendance: 175. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Nathan Lawr's live shows should be required watching for anyone stuck on the stereotype that all drummers are meatheaded roughnecks. Despite his fairly abbreviated opening slot last Saturday at the El Mo , the Guelph expat and Royal City skinsman made enough of an impression with his thoughtfully crafted solo material to let you know he's a dude to watch.
Backed only by an electric cello (damn, those instruments are crazy-looking), Lawr had even the most "mature"-looking, crisp black business-garbed Yonge-and-Eglinton types calling for an encore after he sailed through a set of alt-countryish tunes from this year's lovely The Heart Beats A Waltz disc.
It's obvious Lawr's more accustomed to having a drum kit separating him from the audience (the sweet-voiced singer/songwriter could use a shot of confidence or a shot of Jack Daniel's to take the energy up a notch), and his live songs might benefit from the full band treatment they get on disc. But his songcraft is impeccable and fresh, and Lawr's restrained sincerity was enough to steal the show from both acts that followed.
That genuine vibe is something that evades main attraction Joe Henry . Maybe it's just a function of his living in L.A., but it felt like the moody crooner was playing the part of Dark, Mysterious Musician In A Jazz Bar, right down to his rumpled suit and floppy coif.
Henry's an awesome producer - check any of his albums or soul belter Solomon Burke's 2002 comeback disc for proof - but the noirish atmosphere of his records dissipates live. The guy should have enough experience to know that a single sample-equipped synth and a stand-up bass can't stand in for elaborate studio arrangements (think loads of brass and a full chamber ensemble).
Without the additional instruments as distraction, you started to realize how cheesy Henry's tunes can be. He may be trying to emulate buddy Tom Waits, but none of Henry's mawkish couplets are anywhere near the class of a Kentucky Ave or even a Martha. And his overwrought vocal acrobatics - the strained breaks during emotional moments, the bearish growls - were just silly.
By the time local singer/songwriter Adam Cotton took the stage close to midnight, the crowd had pretty much cleared out. The poor fella made a valiant effort to boost the energy in the club, aided by the ragdoll goofiness of a barefoot guest bassist from L.A.
His everything-but-the-kitchen-sink band was excellent, with mandolin riffs and teeny-weeny thumb cymbals adding cool effects to the varied tunes.
But let's be honest. Cotton sings out of tune. The guy writes great songs that reinvent tired genres, but it don't mean a thing if he can't quite sing.