While CMJ Music Marathon often brings to mind imagery of flannel-clad audiences listening to the recent neo-psychedelic, distortion heavy sounds that have been circulating the music blogs, Los Angeles’ Nick Waterhouse’s performance tonight at Webster Hall proved that the college music scene still has a few surprises in store for its listeners. Even though the audience seemed a little lackluster, Waterhouse and his backing band did not falter in bringing the sweet soul and blues grooves to the CMJ party.
The thick Webster Hall smoke enveloped the stage as Waterhouse’s backing band members took their places, creating the shadowy setting of a nightclub lounge. Clad in a gray, skinny suit with vintage wide-frame glasses, the young jazz musician strolled on stage and began to strum the guitar string-popping rhythm to Raina. The tenor and baritone saxophones wailed their low melodies, while his backing vocalists added their sultry singing and snaps to the jazzy sound emanating from the stage. Shortly into the set, the band faced their first technical difficulty of the night—the guitar amp was “sounding a bit mean,” as Waterhouse light-heartedly phrased it. Someone jokingly called out for a drum solo to fill the silence, and Waterhouse’s drummer began an improvised drum pattern per request.
Like the sounds on his records and his late ’50s-reminiscent wardrobe, Waterhouse’s live performances too are the epitome of old school style—from his husky, southern vocals on Say I Wanna Know and the soon-to-be-recorded Dead Room to the way he clutched his guitar at chest level as he shredded his bluesy guitar solo on Some Place. Unfortunately, this jazz shredding proved a bit much and Waterhouse ended up snapping the G-string. Although he maintained his composure and finished out the song, the replacement G-string refused to cooperate and tune properly. “It’s like that annoying feeling you get when your mom comes to see you perform as a kid and calls your name out,” Waterhouse joked with the crowd. Even with a slightly off-tune guitar string, the variety of bass heavy textures and melodies masked the lingering dissonance of the guitar rhythms, providing the audience with an overall thick, powerful sound. While the band laid everything on the table, the audience did not respond in kind. The venue’s dearth of energy at the beginning could understandably have been associated with the sparse number of fans in the crowd at first. However, even as the show progressed and the venue became more tightly packed, an increase in crowd energy was unnoticeable. A few of the audience’s older couples made some attempts at having fun through awkward dancing, but for most of the set, the fans seemed to remain stagnant and stone-faced unless it was the end of a song.
Nonetheless, Waterhouse and his band played on in hopes of putting some life back into the crowd. After giving shout-outs to California and Texas, as well as to Lee Fields and the Expressions, Waterhouse and his band performed a handful of remaining songs including the slower, cleverly-worded Sleeping Pills and a cover of Barry White’s Tracy (All I Have Is You). During the closing number, Waterhouse poured whatever he had left into the song, with intense sweat flying all over the bridge of his guitar and suit. Just to make sure the crowd would not forget him in the haze of alcohol that would most likely flow throughout the remainder of the night, the young musician let out a blood-curling scream that made the original masters of the blues rattle in their graves. After saying thank you and casually walking off stage, one thing was obvious by the wide-eyes on the audience members faces: this crowd had just been souled.
And there was even more soul-exploding when Lee Fields and his band hit the stage with an awesome set of his classic funk-soul. He seemed to be the one most of the crowd came to see, as they finally started to get moving. And who could blame them for all the groove Fields and Co. were laying down the whole time.
Photos by Nicholas Lorden.