Saturday, September 30, 2017

Live at the Belly Up: Anderson East (KPBS-TV, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a Live at the Belly Up episode featuring singer Anderson East and his band. He was billed as “blue-eyed soul” — i.e., as a white singer trying to sound Black — though his label, Elektra (who signed him after he did two self-produced CD releases), has “typed” him as country since he was born in Alabama (as Michael Cameron Anderson) and now lives in Nashville. Indeed, one of the things I found out about him is that he’s essentially Miranda Lambert’s new boy toy — she not only started dating him after breaking up with Blake Shelton but last July she shocked the country-music world by proposing marriage to him. I’ll give him props for having assembled a marvelously tight band for this performance — though at first I didn’t think much of him either as a singer or a songwriter and, if anything, with his casual dress, scraggly hair and rail-thin frame, he came off like the lead singer in a punk band doing retro-soul as a side project. I must admit that I was put off by the title of his first song, “Find ’Em, Feel ’Em and Forget ’Em,” not only because of the foul attitude towards women expressed in that title but because I suspect that away from the puritanical Federal Communications Commission restrictions on broadcast television, the second F-word in the title is something bolder and nastier than “Feel.”

He did three more O.K. soul romps with similar sentiments, including “Quit You” (though the gravamen of that lyric is that he can’t bring himself to quit the woman he’s singing about), “Only You” (one of those modern-day songs that begs comparison with a classic of yesteryear with the same title — in this case the beautiful doo-wop ballad Buck Ram wrote for his management and production clients, The Platters), and “Always Be My Baby,” before announcing that for his next number he was going to do a love song (“As opposed to all the political songs he’s been doing up till now?” Charles joked). He picked up a guitar and played a ballad called “Lonely,” and while it still had an annoying streak of self-pity (lamenting that his girlfriend has left him and utterly unwilling to accept any responsibility for the breakup), he was much more convincing in this more lyrical mode. Generally Anderson East is better on slow songs, and better when he plays guitar (and his usual lead guitarist switches to lap guitar, a variant of a slide guitar that is generally played sitting down, though the player in East’s band last night was doing it standing up) than when he just sings. After “Lonely” he did a song that the Live at the Belly Up chyron advertised as “She’s Sweet” but which really turned out to be Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” — and while he was hardly at Morrison’s level as a blue-eyed soul artist he did sing the song with distinction (I’ve certainly heard far worse Van Morrison covers, including the awful one of “Wild Night” that was making the rounds about a couple of years ago which so infuriated me I walked into Off the Record, bought the used copy of Tupelo Honey they had and told the man at the counter I needed to get Morrison’s original of “Wild Night” just to clean my ears after the horrible sound of that cover!).

Then he did another soul cover, Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” and while his version was hardly as good either as Floyd’s or the best one by a white artist, Melanie’s cover from the Phonogenic (Not Just Another Pretty Face) album from 1977 (once again Melanie is a woefully underrated artist whom I think of as one of the great white soul voices of the 1960’s, rivaled only by Janis Joplin: if you don’t believe me check out “Momma Momma” from her first album, Born to Be, or “Cyclone” from the 1978 album Photograph), it was appealing — oddly, Charles said he associated the song mostly with a disco version by Amii Stewart in 1979, though if I’ve heard that I certainly don’t remember it! After “Knock on Wood” East did his most “country” song of the night, “The Devil in Me” (which is about him lusting after a minister’s daughter — sort of “Son of a Preacher Man” with the genders reversed), and then his most haunting selection, “What a Woman Wants.” It suffered from the same annoying sexism of most of his songs — the full title is “What a Woman Wants to Hear” and obviously the singer is trying to think of what he has to tell his girlfriend de jour to get her to have sex with him — but it was also lovely and benefited by the way East let his band sit it out and played it with just his own guitar backing. The next song was “Lying in Her Arms,” for which he began it as another solo, then brought in his two horn players (tenor sax and trumpet) to add fills — a haunting effect — and after that he brought in the rest of his band, one by one. Alas, then he put down the guitar and said he was going to do some more uptempo songs — a bit of a mistake since he’s quite obviously more effective on ballads — “Stay With Me,” “Learning (To Be a Man),” unique in East’s repertoire (at least as showcased last night) in a quality of self-reflection rare in his work, and his closer, “Satisfy Me.” Anderson East’s act is an oddball combination of soul, country and rock, and while he doesn’t have that authoritative voice he does quite well with what he has (and I generally liked him better as the evening went on) — I just wish he’d lose the sense I get from some of his songs that he’s just another one of those country boys who treats sex and seduction as a game to be played instead of an expression of love between equals!