On a cool and overcast first night of spring, Ann Arbor’s own DJ turned producer-soul singer Mayer Hawthorne and band provided a bone warming, throwback performance in Santa Monica.
Tucked away in a residential alcove, the show at Apogee Studio was part of KCRW’s similarly named Apogee Session series. Those familiar with the radio station’s pedigree would know that when they call the series the “most intimate” they’ve ever produced, it is saying something special. Hosted by Jason Bentley, the performance and interview will be broadcast on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic on April 8, the release date of Hawthorne’s new album Man About Town.
With less than 200 people in attendance in Apogee’s close quarters, Hawthorne’s band took their places on stage and began an introductory jam that ended with a prerecorded announcement summoning the dapper singer to the stage. “Back Seat Lover,” from 2013’s Where Does This Door Go, proved an appropriate opener for the space, as he cooed “you got me right where you want me, with candy apples and sweet caramel.”
The newest single, “Love Like That,” was performed as if it has been played by the band for years. With a trademark wide-eyed look that borders on a thousand yard stare, Hawthorne sang with his own sense of confidence, pausing to prompt the room to dance, before slipping in to a delicate falsetto to make sure that they did.
“Designer Drug,” a bonus track from the Where Does This Door Go session, was in many ways the most musical moment of the night. It grew out of Joe Abrams’ wet bass intro, included subtle cosmic synth additions, and segued in to a passage where Hawthorne himself banged away on a standalone snare drum. All this before the band redirected course and took the audience back to 1991 via much welcome nostalgia, Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison.”
Mid way through the set, Bentley spoke amiably with Hawthorne about everything from his fashion sense and SXSW, to a favorite LA restaurant for a romantic dinner (Dan Tana’s), to a wonderful anecdote about when KCRW and he first crossed paths at the Fox Hills Mall in 2009. Fans of Hawthorne’s Tuxedo project were audibly delighted to hear that a second album will see the light of day. The collaboration with producer Jake One started in 2006 over a shared loved of what they call “jheri curl funk.”
Later, a question about his background as a DJ shed light on his intentions in both the studio and live settings. Hawthorne was a DJ for ten years before ever writing a song, a surprising number considering the ease with which he performs his sets. But in the same way a DJ would blend tracks together to keep a room moving, Hawthorne sequences his shows and his albums with the aim for seamless transitions between songs.
The second half of music saw two new numbers, two older ones, and a “Walk This Way” cover replete with organ rolls, and a fleeting glimpse of an electric guitar over Hawthorne’s left shoulder. One of the new tracks was a song about Los Angeles that advised that a girl has “got to get out of the Valley” lest she die, while another had a more mellow reggae lurch. Like much of Mayer Hawthorne’s catalogue, the songs were palatable and playful, if mildly sexual.
In other words, Prince he isn’t. But he does manage to channel a certain PG-13 version of the Purple One’s sexier, funk ethos. Let your soul glow, Mayer.
Back Seat Lover
Love Like That
I Wish It Would Rain
Walk This Way