A native St. Louisan and the son of first-generation Sri Lankan immigrants, Bhi Bhiman writes and sings country-tinged songs in a keening tone guaranteed to grab the unsuspecting listener by the frontal lobe and the earlobes at the same time. A die-hard Cardinal fan — playing baseball was his passion as a kid growing up in Ballwin until an injury in his mid-teens put an end to his big-league dreams — these days he lives in the Bay Area, and right now he's performing solo in Scandinavia, opening for Rosanne Cash. May 14 marks the release of Bhiman's third CD, Substitute Preacher, a six-song set of covers from the 1970s and '80s — a period that, he writes in the liner notes, "I like to call the Golden Era of S***."
The new disc is part KSHE Klassics, to be sure. But Bhiman (pronounced bee-man) has curated the slim selection with loving care, from the pick-and-whistle rendition of Dire Straits' "Walk of Life" that opens the proceedings to the folksy re-imagining of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" that brings the curtain down. In between: Talking Heads, the Police, Dio and Tom Petty.
Wait, Dio? As in Ronnie James Dio?
"If you've ever seen the music video for that song 'Rainbow in the Dark,' he's belting it out, doing his power-rock stance, from a rooftop," the 30-year-old artist says. "It's one of my favorite music videos of all time."
The two versions have nothing in common besides the melody, lyrics and the respective artists' vocal gravitation to the upper register. In Bhiman's hands the song is ethereal, imbued with a Nashville twang that at first seems out of joint but settles in before you realize you're listening to a heavy-metal anthem. (Imagine hearing opera at the Opry.)
"I thought I did a decent job of interpreting it," Bhiman says, appreciating the irony. But in all seriousness, when he discovered the guitar as a kid, it wasn't singer-songwriters he wanted to emulate. "When I started out, I liked heavy rock & roll. I liked Black Sabbath, I liked AC/DC a lot — those were my guitar heroes, and I started copying them really heavily. I like all kinds of music — I don't really hate on any kind of music. One of my least favorite things is for somebody to go, 'I like all kinds of music...except country.' I think that's a dumb, ignorant thing to say."
Though he qualifies it with a "probably," he calls "Rainbow in the Dark" his favorite song on the album. "Just because I feel like it comes together well, and the song he's singing is very beautiful, very relatable."
The covers project came about when Bhiman found himself in limbo, having produced a self-titled sophomore CD that had music writers from the New York Times, Washington Post and National Public Radio thumbing through their thesauruses in search of adjectives to describe his arched-eyebrow lyrics and alto-inflected delivery. He has written enough new songs for another album, he says, but he's not yet ready to commit to the studio.
"I've always enjoyed covering songs, as a singer and as a guitar player," Bhiman explains. "It can be more enjoyable, more freeing. You can step away from yourself a little bit — but I did have to take some liberties with some of the songs and have a little fun with it. I was working on my country blues guitar and vocals a little bit, and I started messing around with a Mississippi John Hurt sort of style, and happened upon 'Walk of Life,' and it kind of fell into place. I started playing that around at shows and having the audience whistling along. People really liked it, and I really enjoyed playing it."
Though it came too late for Preacher, Bhiman's recent participation in a star-studded Prince tribute at Carnegie Hall drew raves from Rolling Stone, following an open rehearsal that was staged at City Winery: "[M]aybe the best performance of the evening — or at least the most memorable — was Bhi Bhiman's solo acoustic take on 'When Doves Cry,' his vocals giving off a haunted air that left the crowd speechless."
Bhiman is grateful for the compliment, but he seems more surprised that none of the better-known names on the roster snatched the song from his grasp. "I thought, 'OK, I'll just throw it out there.' I guess people were just 'too cool for school' on that one," he speculates. "They wanted to dig a little deeper, you know? But I was happy to get it."
"I've never been in a room with so many giants," he goes on. "It was ridiculous: Chris Rock was there. Booker T. Jones — I got to meet him and talk to him, and he was really down-to-earth, really humble, really nice. D'Angelo was there, and he burned the house down — he was unbelievable. The Roots were there, and Elvis Costello. Diana Krall showed up. It was interesting, because they were in, like, a celebrity clique, and me and several other people were outside that ring, kind of in a box. You can't help but laugh. You feel like, 'I'm watching a television set' a little bit. But watching the show was a lot of fun. Everybody was doing their thing, and some rabid, rabid Prince fans were able to do renditions of their favorite songs."
(Everyone except Prince, who failed to materialize.)
Even as he prepares for the release of Substitute Preacher, Bhiman is anticipating a return to the studio later this year to record a new set of original material, with the aim of releasing an album in 2014. In the meantime he actively engages with fans at shows and on Twitter and Facebook (both accessible @bhibhiman).
"Twitter is like reaching out to people and actually having a conversation," he says. "Facebook is like you're sort of making your own little newspaper and putting it in print every day or every other day. It's work, in that you have to keep at it. But it's worldwide, and it has such a great reach. Those two things in conjunction are such big tools — I mean, I'm sitting here in Copenhagen, tweeting, with wi-fi in the room and all that — it's there all the time, and it's amazing. It's so easy to converse with your fans and get the word out."
In fact, Bhiman has been leaking songs from Substitute Preacher through both social media platforms, uploading a song a week to his SoundCloud account (@bhibhiman) and then linking to them from Facebook and Twitter. To date he has shared "Walk of Life" — for which he also made a video featuring footage from Buster Keaton films — and Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)." When George Jones died last month, Bhiman promptly shared a version of "She Thinks I Still Care," telling his followers, "Was holding onto this for Substitute Preacher Vol. 2, but it seemed fitting to post today. RIP Ol' Possum."