by Liz Miller
Mayer Hawthorne and the County | the Stepkids May 22, 2012 The Firebird
Mayer Hawthorne is so smooth. His pitch-perfect pipes slide from fragile falsetto to deep, soul-filled croon; his style and swagger resemble a mix of Buddy Holly and Andre 3000. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, less than 50 miles from the city that bore Motown, Andrew Mayer Cohen came of age during the rise of rap and R&B in the 1980s and 1990s. The stage name Mayer Hawthorne combines his middle name with the name of the street of his childhood home, otherwise known as the formula for generating porn star names. His breakout album, A Strange Arrangement (2009), and his latest release, How Do You Do (2011) share his talented, soulful sound, but understanding Mayer Hawthorne is best explained in his live show, where polished stage presence and creative crowd interaction bring the song to life.
The last time Mayer Hawthorne and his band mates from the County came to St. Louis it was as tour support for Chromeo at the Pageant in November 2011, shortly after the release of How Do You Do. In early May he kicked-off the How Do You Do North American tour, stopping in St. Louis on Tuesday, May 22, at the Firebird (2706 Olive Street; 314-535-0353) with Stones Throw Records label mates psychedelic funk trio the Stepkids opening. A signature of the trippy Stepkids live experience is the group's kaleidoscope projections, enhanced by band outfitted in all white down to their instruments. Experimental video bleeds in and out of the performances, pulsating with the music, ebbing with its flow in pixels resembling at times eight-bit video games, at others tribal scrawls. The three-piece trades and share vocal duty of their ambient, primal noise, keeping the crowd on its toes with its wild imagery and chill energy.
The laid-back but dancey vibe of the Stepkids primed last night's crowd well for the headliner, who, after a quick dismantling for the projection screen, took the stage at 9:30 p.m. Clad in a similar uniform of fitted denim pants, crisp white dress shirts, blazers and variations of Keep kicks, the band oozed freshness from the get-go. Making his way to the center of the stage -- and standing in front of a Mayer Hawthorne bobble-head doll, which a crew member previously warned the crowd not to steal with the the threat, "I will chase you down. I've done it before." -- Hawthorne met the audience with a grin, introducing the band and singing a few bars before launching into "You Called Me." From the first it was clear that the packed house of all-ages fans were feeling it, with shimmying and swaying in no short order and catcalls, like, "You're so sexy!" and "I want your babies!" abounding.
The performance volleyed back and forth between A Strange Arrangement and How Do You Do tracks, offering fans of every persuasion something to enjoy: On the heels of "You Called Me" came "Make Your Mind," pouring into "Your Easy Lovin' Ain't Pleasin' Nothin'," and back again to "The Walk" with lyrics like, "Your shitty fuckin' attitude has got me changing my mind," dripping with more sass than Smokey. Cover songs revealing Hawthorne's influences peppered the setlist as well, with J. Dilla's "Rico Sauve Bossa Nova" flawlessly flowing into Hawthorne's "One Track Mind."
Fans of Hawthorne are likely familiar with the musician's predilection for adventurous eating while on tour, with food pictures from new cities frequenting his Instagram account as regularly as show photos (only his staged and posed crowd shots edging them out in popularity). Though its not evident in his demeanor, he pauses between songs to confess a feeling of sluggishness he attributes a "Frito Pie" he ate earlier that day from Pappy's Smokehouse (3106 Olive Street; 314-535-4340) down the street.
During "Stick Around" he attempts the Chuck Berry duck walk to more success than many achieve. Upbeat "Stick Around" gives way to a stunning high tenor a cappella arrangement of Busta Rhymes "Do My Thing" with fellow members of the County contributing to vocals. It's short but sweet and before the crowd knows it we've moved on to "Love In Motion" and then a preamble to "No Strings" explaining that he likes to write songs about love, but this song is "strictly about sex." Then it's wedding march-approved "Shiny & New," possibly Hawthorne's best-known song thanks to hip happy couples everywhere, followed by "I Wish It Would Rain," not to be confused with the Temptations song of the same name, though Hawthorne's voice haunts songs in the style of group co-founder Eddie Kendricks.
The musing, moody "Dreaming" precedes the last cover of the evening, Hall and Oates "You Make My Dreams Come True," a tune, if possible, Hawthorne belts with more conviction and flash than Darryl or John. The evening concludes with "Hooked" and "The Ills," and the band exits the stage at 10:50 p.m., returning thus to play "The Price Is Right" as encore.
Personal Bias: Also the child of baby boomer parents who loved Motown music, I'm enamored anew with Hawthorne's transfixing, soulful voice and fresh, forward-moving sound.
Random Detail: Near the end of the night, Hawthorne pulled a go-go dancing gal on stage and plopped her down, front row center, in the crowd, incurring more than a little ire from disgruntled neighbors.
Setlist: Intro You Called Me Make Her Mind Your Easy Lovin' Ain't Pleasin' Nothin' The Walk Rico Suave Bossa Nova (J. Dilla cover) One Track Mind Stick Around Do My Thing/Watch Me Get Down (Busta Rhymes cover) Love In Motion No Strings Shiny & New Wish It Would Rain Dreaming You Make My Dreams Come True (Hall and Oates cover) A Long Time Finally Falling Green Eyed love Strange Arrangements Get Out Of My Life Woman Just Ain't Gonna Work Out Hooked The Ills The Price Is Right