Hawthorne Lives Up to Soul's Legacy at Bimbo's

Photo: I'm still in love with you. Mayer Hawthorne showed his stage mastery last Thursday at Bimbo's 365 Club, where he displayed the virtuoso soul-man skills for which he's known.
Javier Panzar/Photo
I'm still in love with you. Mayer Hawthorne showed his stage mastery last Thursday at Bimbo's 365 Club, where he displayed the virtuoso soul-man skills for which he's known.

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We are inherently fascinated with anomalies, things that don't fit neatly into our conceptual categories. Take, in the extreme case, the albino, red-eyed alligator lurking in San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences, seizing visitors with bewilderment. Or, on a more pedestrian level, a customer who orders dessert before his entree. Odd, and most likely frowned upon. And then there's the white, Jewish soul singer - Mayer Hawthorne (aka Andrew Cohen), a boychick raised just outside of the fertile musical grounds of Motor City, beloved by those willing to resign their skepticism. Although historically Jews have been linked to black genres, e.g. the rap group the Beastie Boys, jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and singer Amy Winehouse, not many male performers have come close to approaching Hawthorne's precision in sounding like his predecessors. I'm already faklempt.

Mayer indeed carves an unusual figure in the current musical landscape. On the one hand, he seems to derive success from being marketed as a parody. Take for example the YouTube series "Mayer's Love Corner," with Mayer (debonairly seated in an armchair in front of a fireplace) offering romantic advice to earnest love inquiries. Even his stage name was taken from the gimmicky porn star appellation formula: Middle name + Street name. There is a self-mocking element in his persona, poking fun at the impossibility of such a contradiction. But what does it mean when the parody improves upon the thing it's supposed to comically represent? Listening to his voice, you would swear that it belonged to a singer of the late '60s-early '70s period, a tenor landing somewhere in between Smokey Robinson and Curtis Mayfield. But this is simply his niche. Mayer finds himself positioned in an unorthodox relationship with his music, and whether or not the initial humor was used as a safeguard against potential outcries, he now fits comfortably into the role of a legitimate soul performer.

But Mayer is certainly no slouch when it comes to the music he pays tribute to. He's a self-proclaimed vinyl junkie, a student of the Motown juggernaut and hunter of hard-to-find soul 45s (his compilation Soul With a Hole Vol. 1 is a revealing testament to his breadth of knowledge). His debut album, fittingly titled A Strange Arrangement, exudes a romantic nostalgia that makes you wish you had grown up in the teeny-bopper era, casually escorting your date to the Drive-Thru to sip on malted milkshakes. Yet Mayer isn't altogether a revivalist. Paired with his love of soul is an equal passion for hip-hop, and Mayer's songs have that familiar bump that set them in a modern context.

Bimbo's 365 Club couldn't have better suited Mayer's performance this past Thursday. A historical relic of SF that opened in 1931, Bimbo's recalls a classic aura with plush red velvet curtains, glimmering chandeliers, white-suited bathroom attendants and the sounds of clinking martini glasses. Mayer didn't fail to play the part either.

Dressed in matching red sport jackets, Mayer and his backing band the County were greeted by a roaring audience packed with Mayer look-alikes, sporting slim-cut suits and skinny ties with thick-framed glasses. One year ago Mayer had performed at the Rickshaw Stop, a little unsure of his stage presence, still processing the idea of who he was as an artist. But enough time on the road will inevitably transform an amateur into a seasoned veteran, and this transition was markedly proven. Along with the help of a new drummer, Mayer crooned his way through barbershop and doo-wop harmonies, lulling the audience into reveries with heavy backbeats layered with choppy guitar licks. Mayer played his walk-in-the-park, love-tinged hit single "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out," released on heart-shaped vinyl no less, performed his jaunty remix of Snoop Dogg's "Gangsta Luv" and capped the show with the crowd favorite ballad "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." The audience ate it up, and who wouldn't, especially after he related his affinity for the Bay Area by name-dropping the Sinaloa Taco Truck in Fruitvale. What a charmer.

A second album is on its way, and there have been rumors of a New Wave-type project, although this could easily be in jest. It would seem detrimental to move away from his current exploits, considering he has grasped a potent multiethnic, multi-aged fan base, but if he approaches the album with the same expertise as he did with A Strange Arrangement, the future seems auspicious. The white, Jewish kid from Ann Arbor is one of the leading faces of the soul genre - just let that phrase sink in, swish around and settle before picking up the album.

Fight an albino alligator with Justin at [email protected]

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