Laren Loveless knows how to put on a show. As the music instructor and performing arts teacher at City Academy, an independent grade school at North Kingshighway and Natural Bridge, Loveless' last few weeks of May will be filled with a certain kind of drama. He's helping his students stage a version of The Wiz and working with his classes not only on performing, but creating, their own art.
"I love to create with the students, so I want to create original content at all times," Loveless says. "There's something very special about going, 'I'm not going to teach you how to sing that song, because you don't care about that song. But if we wrote a song together, you can't really fake that.'"
It's a lesson that the teacher has begun applying to his own craft. Over the past three years, Loveless has served as an occasional vocalist with Sean Canan's Voodoo Players, a rotating cast of musicians who embody a variety of different musical acts, from the Beatles to Ween, each Wednesday night at the Broadway Oyster Bar. Loveless takes the lead on some of the group's more soulful (and higher-octave) sets, including Van Morrison, Prince and Michael Jackson. Not unlike the school plays he helps stage, Loveless regularly brings qualities of drama, improv and impersonation to his sets with the band.
But this Friday night, Loveless, Canan and several of the Voodoo crew move the act from the Oyster Bar to Off Broadway for the Laren Loveless Revue. He'll spend the first part of the show combining some greatest hits from Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Elvis Presley and more. The latter half of the set will focus on Loveless' original, soul-driven music.
"I wanted to do a night where we cover everyone we do in one sitting, but then also say, 'Hey, this is my music as well. This is what we're doing with Laren Loveless' sound,' at the end of the night," he says. "This will be the first time for people hearing some of these songs."
Loveless says that while he'll be in a sort of musical costume (and in some cases, a literal costume) for the covers set, he looks forward to the end of the night when he gets to, as he says, "shed my heart a little bit to the crowd and say that these are the songs I've been writing knowing I was becoming a father, writing, for the first time, about shit I've been seeing in this city.
"It's the most personal material that I've written," he says.
Loveless has created plenty of original music before — as a singer, drummer and pianist, he's led the groups Reeling Gilly and the Vintage Years (as well as playing drums with this author in an earlier incarnation of the local dream-pop band Spectator). But a few recent life changes took him away from releasing his own music: Though he never stopped writing and recording, Loveless' teaching, familial and Voodoo-related duties kept him busy enough.
"I've been sitting on some of these recordings, but I don't want to do it the way I've always done, which is show up with the album and have a release show," he says. "I just want people to hear them live first and get to know them, sing along, fall in love with them, and then come out with the album."
Even though his eventual album is still a ways off, Loveless knows what the first song will be.
"There's a song called 'Community Conversation' — I've just been really confused about what the fuck is going on since Ferguson," he says. "Having my own child I have to look at life with a new set of eyes. I have someone that I am responsible for — I have to have my feelers out there for what kind of world he's growing up in."
Loveless says that he's struggled with getting overtly political in his music — he notes that his heroes always found ways to keep the message oblique but still powerful — but that for this song, at least, he had to embrace it.
"I'm done with how we're treating each other. It's the very first song that starts off the album — it's a testimony to what I see and how I want to surrender to it," he says. "I don't care whose side you're on — we can't keep doing this to each other."
Sharing that message is a part of the role that Loveless is becoming more comfortable in inhabiting.
"I was blessed to have the opportunity to take the mic, and in that I learned how to man the crowd," Loveless says. "I'm not a drummer anymore; I'm not a piano player anymore. It's you, so you have to conjure something out of it.
"I've learned to go, 'You're not gonna sing it like Michael. You're not Prince,'" he says. "'You're you and you can do your own thing.'"