Soul’s Renaissance Man: Mayer Hawthorne and the County Live Review

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Mayer Hawthorne is all about his roots – all of his roots.

The soul-revivalist is best known for a sound steeped in the Detroit-born traditions of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s–and with good reason. At first listen, the Michigan native sounds like close kin to Smokey Robinson, soaring through long, above-the-staff phrases and easing into groovy refrains. Hawthorne (actually a pseudonym–more on that later) traces that influence to a childhood in radio’s reach of the Motor City, but there’s more to his music–and much, much more to his show–than nostalgia. Monday night at The Jefferson, Mayer Hawthorne made it clear that he deals not just in songs, nor just in soul-revival – but in sound, and a sound all his own at that.

Mayer Hawthorne and the Country showed off some soul-revival skills at The Jefferson Theater on Monday.

When Andrew Cohen, an Los Angeles-based DJ and vinyl junkie, started singing, it was to tailor-make his sample collection. Assuming the stage name Mayer Hawthorne, the crooner has crafted a show that absolutely looks and feels like a DJ, a collector, is behind all its quirks and nuances. 

The stage was set with impeccable fashion. Sultry red velvet, bright spotlighting and a giant, flashing MH brought the stage to life. Hawthorne himself sported a black tuxedo jacket (until the encore, when he whipped out a red one, a la Mark Ronson) and red patent dunks, and his band wore three-piece suits. Not a thing–amp, person, or accessory– was out of place. Even the mysterious yet attractive leather lounge chair, positioned stage right, came into play when Hawthorne posed on it for an Instagram with the audience. Soon after that photograph, he offered the crowd “their last chance to watch the show through a tiny, little screen,” imploring that all photos be taken and put out of the way, and that people simply experience the music and have a good time. With everything non-musical about Hawthorne’s performance so calculated, expectations were high. 

Mayer Hawthorne and the County were on point. He led the band through perfectly executed, thrilling, danceable numbers, most of which were on 2011’s How Do You Do.  Further proof that he chases not just songs, but a sound, an experience came when they played a horn track along, showcasing some of Hawthorne’s best instrumental work. Covers included both New Orleans soul duo Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out of My Life Woman,” a record fan’s delight and the soundtrack-revived Hall & Oates “You Make My Dreams Come True,” a real crowd-pleaser. The band reached its most somber in an older selection, “It Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” before breaking out in a happy-go-lucky, dance-around-the-stage performance of “Dreaming,” a favorite from the most recent album. Hawthorne controlled the crowd like a good DJ – leading dances, stopping dances in their tracks on stunning held notes, dropping the crowd’s preferred cover like a well-kept secret. 

In Mayer Hawthorne, you can see the Detroit-bred "record-phile", the guy just singing the music he knows and loves and the J Dilla-admiring producer. His performance Monday night accessed all the fun and passion of good soul music, with all the precision and experience of a seasoned producer. All carefully blended with remarkable attention to detail– into a perfectly good time. It’s easy to see where Mayer Hawthorne’s been – and not hard to guess where he’s going. –Tyler Wood

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