The first thing I noticed at last night's Mayer Hawthorne show was the diversity of the audience. Sure, there were a few fanboys in bow ties and suspenders at the Majestic Theatre, but overall you couldn't put a pin on the audience: They were young, old; male, female; and everything in between -- mustachioed hipsters, frat boys, suburban moms and their boyfriends, uptown gals looking to get noticed. In the end, the only unifying factor for was the music. Fans came for the soul, and for the most part that's what they got -- after the opening act.
Milwaukee's The Living Statues opened with a blistering, frenetic set of garage rock and Beatles-style pop. Frontman Tommy Shears was wonderful. He was animated, angular and keening -- equal parts James Dean, Jim Morrison and Julian Casablancas, every part the teen heartthrob. The band was tight and muscular without overpowering the singing, evoking early Strokes, the British Invasion and American proto-punk of the 1960s.
I was completely taken aback. Their 45-minute set seemed to blow by in a matter of minutes. It's not every day that I see a regional band that's clearly on its way to a national stage, but when I do, I take notice.
After this exemplary set, Hawthorne shook the house down with a well-choreographed set of "retro soul" tunes. It showcased the hits from his past two albums: 2009's A Strange Arrangement and his 2011 major-label debut, How Do You Do.
All through the concert, I was impressed by Hawthorne's showmanship. Even with an airtight set -- the transitions between tunes were seamless, and the band had choreographed moves in every song -- he managed to keep the audience hyped up and entertained. Unapologetically hip, he kept his between-song banter to a minimum but borrowed heavily from his hip-hop influences for his onstage swagger and panache. It was an irresistible combination, and the audience ate it up.
Highlights from the show included "One Track Mind," "No Strings," "The Walk," an audience sing-along for "Henny & Gingerale" and a unique cover of Frank Sinatra's "I've Got A Crush On You," which Hawthorne performed from a low-slung leather armchair. I wouldn't say that Hawthorne upstaged Ol' Blue Eyes with his cover, but the audience loved it, and his magnetism was undeniable.
The coolest part of the set was hearing Hawthorne's music stripped down. Without a pile of backup singers and a string section, his sound is more evocative of the early Stax sound than the Muscle Shoals and Motown sound he's known for reproducing.
But frankly, the opening set was my favorite part of the show. Mayer Hawthorne was very good, but I couldn't shake the feeling that the Majestic was just another show for him and his band; his performance seemed routine, and I felt underwhelmed after the planned encore. The Living Statues, on the other hand, were like a shot of adrenaline: edgy, dangerous and unpredictable -- rock 'n' roll at its best. Perhaps that's not in keeping with Hawthorne's poppy, manicured sound, but it's certainly the perfect antidote.