The text conversation between my sister and me went something like this:
“Vanessa! Guess who’s playing at Ace of Spades tonight? Mayer Hawthorne!”
Me: “Ahhh yes! Who’s opening?”
“I have told you everything I know.”
“Fortunately that’s enough for me. Anything for the Hawth.”
The concert took place on Tuesday, June 19th at R St.’s Ace of Spades and was part of Mayer Hawthorne’s world tour to promote his latest album, How Do You Do.
Hawthorne step-touched onto the neo-soul scene in 2009. The guy has swagger. He’s a white kid with soul and, as artists like Jack White and Robin Thicke have proven (albeit with varied styles), there’s unmistakable appeal in such a quality. There’s also something magnetic about someone so young (33) who can embody the charm, sweet sex appeal, and croony sound of the Motown years. His get-up at Ace of Spades – a nostalgic velour blazer, spiffy bowtie and frames, and skinny slacks – combined with some fly Adidas Classics – reflected his paradoxical sensibility of old school flavor coupled with new school cool. His melodies intimate the smooth soul of yesteryear, but his lyrics and self-produced approach are up-to-the minute-millenial. He ever-so-slightly invokes a hipster Justin Timberlake. Minus the corny beat-boxing.
Although I’ve been a fan of his for a while, I must admit, I’d somewhat relegated him to the fakey falsetto likes of Pharrell Williams. You know, the type of hip-hop artist who starts to sing his own hooks with an exaggerated croony style that makes for a kitschy sweet sound that girls swoon over, but doesn’t necessarily require much vocal talent. Seeing Hawthorne live, however, proved this to be a gross underestimation! Dude had range. Not only did he have potent pipes, he had a command of the stage that rendered the crowd – comprised mainly of twenty- and thirty-something men and women, couples and single ladies and lads – helpless against his charms. We swayed our arms and mimed rain drops with our hands (during “I Wish It Would Rain”) at his command. Plus, his distinctive brand of cool lent him the ability to look boss with a tambourine and not much else. He played guitar for the first few songs but soon left that responsibility to his fro’d out guitarist.
His set was a medley of his upbeat hits – “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” “A Long Time,” – and slow jams like “Get to Know You,” and “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out.” In the same way, his subject matter and lyrics alternate between the playful and seductive aspects of relationships: “Could it be I’m finally fallin’ for you” and the sassy satisfaction of a good break-up: “You can walk those high heels, baby, right outta my life.” A crowd-pleasing highlight of the night was his cover of Hall and Oates’s “Makin’ My Dreams Come True,” for which Hawthorne’s feel-good style was perfect.
Hawthorne’s soulful gestures and intermittent sweet-talking conjured Barry White (“I know we only recently met, [but…]”), who Hawthorne has cited as one of his influences, but I’m pretty sure Barry never took a break between sets for an iphone break. Hawthorne literally staged a few poses for the crowd to photograph him to their hearts’ content with their ubiquitous iphones. Using the photo opp as a bargaining tool, he challenged the audience to stash away their phones for the rest of the show so as to enjoy the present moment. Imagine that! “Let’s party together, here, in real life!” Hawthorne dared the crowd.
While his minimalist gesturing complimented his slower songs, it would have been nice to see him bust a move to further energize his upbeat jams. A pelvic thrust and some fancy footwork would have gone a long way with the crowd of screaming women. But one could argue that such affectations aren’t his style. He did, however, teach the crowd one simple dance move (holding out one’s hand and rotating it back and forth) that all the cats do back in his old hood just outside Detroit, Michigan. The soulful serenader pays tribute to Detroit, a city rich with soul and jazz history, with the funky track, “A Long Time,” in which he croons, “Welcome to the Motortown”.
Although much attention is given to Hawthorne’s influences – Curtis Mayfield, Smokey Robinson – not all his influences are jazzy Motown legends of yore. Having been a hip-hop DJ/Producer his whole life and self-proclaimed vinyl-junkie, he’s cited the late prolific hip-hop producer J. Dilla and as one of his greatest influences. In fact, I had the pleasure of spotting him in the crowd at a J. Dilla tribute event at a Los Angeles club last year.
Bands that favor classic sounds have struck a chord with the millennial generation. Maybe it’s because we’re in love with nostalgia, as Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” pointed out; or maybe it’s our way of enjoying the awesome music we missed out on; or maybe it’s just damn good. The secret to referential music’s staying power, it seems, is the artist's genuine affection for the music genre they're emulating. And with one sneaker in Hipsterville, and the other planted firmly in Motown, it seems The Hawth has done just that.