Last night, Harper Simon wasn't received as the lauded prodigal son of a folk-rock and songwriting legend. He was another unknown, paying his dues in an empty room. Although he played to an indifferent audience, Simon led a group of top-notch players in extended rock breakdowns of his recent debut album's folk- and alt-country-tinged songs. With unhurried confidence, Simon displayed solid songwriting skills and musicianship--as well as the ability to place the right people around him, ones who can expand your vision and make you more than you were alone.
Thank goodness for hometown openers the Pernikoff Brothers, as there was a good chance that without them, Simon would have played only for those getting paid to be there: the bartenders and me. The three-piece makes appealing, acoustic-based blue-eyed soul with muted harmonies. The two brothers take turns on instruments and lead vocals, but Tom Pernikoff's light-sandpaper voice provides the basis for "sounds-like" comparisons with national acts: Jamie Cullum without the piano or Ray LaMontagne with human contact. Rick and Tom Pernikoff, who attended elite Boston universities before starting up a company in Silicon Valley, seem to bring bona-fide business smarts to building their band's name, as evidenced by the crowd showing. It'll be interesting to watch as they make plans for sonic expansion (adding horns) and local domination.
Supportive locals lined the bar and filled the balcony, stools and pews for the Pernikoffs. Most were middle-aged, there because they liked the Brothers' performances at Straub's, but when Harper Simon moseyed onstage, the younger weirdos in the crowd showed themselves. There was the young tugboat man against the bar, whose first friendly question before he knew he was talking to Simon was,"You got any drugs?" (It was also his first question after he found out he was talking to Simon.) Simon answered that he was sober, saying, "I didn't know St. Louis was such a party town."
And then there was that guy who did "the worm." Five songs into Simon's set, during quietly swinging "Ha Ha," a young dude took to humping the barren dance floor to much laughter and applause from his friends. Yet as the song-- and attention-- turned to a fuzzy freak-out with a still-intact and lovely melody, Simon sang, "Joke's on you," with wry timing.
At first I was unsure if Simon would be enough of a commanding stage presence in voice, body and experience to kick up the sometimes sleepy tone of his album, but from just a few songs in, he carved out a space as leader on a stage full of outstanding players. The four-piece band behind Simon was exceptional, sounding like old hands so sure of themselves they could remain water-tight while knocking around the inside of a song. I was shocked to find out from Simon after the show that they've only played together for the couple of weeks since the tour started. On loan from Cat Power (Gregg Foreman, keys, Erik Paparozzi, bass), Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (drummer Russell Simins), and Jenny Lewis/Rilo Kiley (Mike Bloom, whose performance on lap steel was incredible), these guys took Harper's sweet, conversational tenor and guitar chops and elevated them from coffeehouse to rock club.
Simon played through most of his debut, letting the band unfold the songs with intros and breakdowns, toeing the line between spacey shoegaze and twangy rock. Two well-chosen and timeless '70s covers were highlights of the show: "See No Evil" by Television and personal favorite "Kangaroo" by Big Star, in which the dreamy, crunchy riffs let Simon sing in a lower register and sound quite unlike his father, Paul.
It's too bad the crowd had all-but-disappeared before he played his strongest originals: the airy alt-country tunes "Shooting Star" and "The Shine." The latter song was enough to make any indie-rock heart melt into their shoes: a slow, warm lament that's lonely and in love at the same time.
The bottom line is, Simon is going about making a name the right way: deliberate, considered and on the basis of smart, melodic songwriting. Sure, he's tapped his family resources (after all, Bob Johnston produced his album!), but each night should show him something about becoming a more expeditionary musician. Last night was a start for someone who could be a significant songwriter, even if nobody knew what they were seeing.
Setlist: All to God See No Evil (Television cover) Wishes and Stars The Audit Ha Ha Cactus Flower Rag All I Have Are Memories Kangaroo (Big Star cover) Shooting Star The Shine Berkeley Girl