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And I am telling you I’m not Robin Thicke: Jennifer Hudson at the Palace.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Voices

By Shawn Stone

Jennifer Hudson, Robin Thicke

Palace Theatre, March 31

 

How in the hell did Jennifer Hudson not win American Idol? I’ve only seen the show once or twice, but I caught one of those American Idols Live! tours a few years ago and no one in that show—admittedly from a different competition year—came within a mile of Hudson’s talent, or voice.

From the first note of “One Night Only” that Hudson sang on the Palace stage, she tore the roof off the theater. And she never showed the slightest hint of being tired; she never sounded as if she were straining. She started and stopped notes on a dime, talked to the adoring audience in her sassy but offhand style and then went back into whatever she was singing without missing a beat—or a breath.

It was an amazing performance.

She’s so relaxed that when she went into her showstopping number from Dreamgirls, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” it almost seemed that she wasn’t even using 100 percent of her energy. (That’s not a compliment or a zinger, just a neutral observation.) Hudson’s so convincing that she even made something as corny as Mac Davis’ “I Believe in Music” sound totally sincere.

One minor complaint: Too often, Hudson tried to turn the show into a sing-along. I don’t want to hear the customers around me sing. Not when Jennifer Hudson is on stage.

Blue-eyed-soul superstar Robin Thicke went on first, and received almost as loud a reception as Hudson did. If the sound of it was slightly different, that’s because the crowd’s roar was accented by the extra-saucy screams of the ladies.

The son of TV personality Alan has one great vocal weapon—a pliant falsetto that’s set for sexy. Thicke could (and did) elicit squeals of delight with every stage pose, but it was that soulful high voice that really made the women let loose.

His material ranged from the excellent to the, well, somewhat less-than-excellent. “The Sweetest Thing,” crooned by Thicke at the piano (the dude can play, too), was terrific. “Dreamworld,” Thicke’s self-penned ode to his perfect universe, was a dud. (I’d like for the polar ice caps to stop melting and Marvin Gaye to be alive, too, but one idea doesn’t have much resonance in the company of the other.)

Thicke apologized for the slight rasp in his voice, blaming a cold, but no one seemed to mind; the woman sitting next to me shouted, “It’s all right baby, you’re doing fine.”

Thicke’s band was the house band, so to speak, for the entire evening. There was a three-piece horn section, drummer, keyboardist, bass, guitar and two singers. They were great, and certainly earned their pay on this mostly-glitch-free first show on the Hudson-Thicke tour.


A Friendly Gathering

The Flatlanders, Joe Pug

The Egg, April 4

As the Flatlanders, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock have a nearly 40-year history. However, their longevity is marked by long periods of inactivity as the three members pursued their own separate careers. They formed in 1970, and their infamous 1972 debut was released only on 8-track tape. Reissued 18 years later on CD, it was aptly appended with the title More a Legend Than a Band. Near the end of the ’90s they returned to the studio to record a song for the soundtrack of The Horse Whisperer, and since then have been relatively prolific with two studio albums and then a live disc, and now the just-released Hills and Valleys.

Touring in support of their new album, the Flatlanders came to the Egg Saturday night and found the Swyer Theatre filled with fans welcoming songs both familiar and new with equal enthusiasm. The three guitar-playing singer-songwriters were backed by a trio of guitar, bass and drums. Ballads had breadth and texture, and uptempo numbers kicked up dust with controlled fury. Since friendship first brought them together in Lubbock, Texas, it’s that very element which gave a relaxed character to the night. While a show by any of them on their own which would have its own dramatic arc to it, the Flatlanders’ set was infused with casual camaraderie as songs moved from one man to another. While that’s not a recipe for intensity, it’s also not what they’re after. These are three potent songwriters, now in their 60s, sure of their own voices and seemingly content with their place in the world. The Flatlanders evolved from three separate songwriters to a collaborative writing triumvirate—more than half of the new album’s selections are credited jointly to the three of them. The night’s only song not by any of them was the exuberant “The Way We Are,” written by Gilmore’s son Colin.

Opener Joe Pug has a big, inviting sound. Both his guitar and voice are compelling instruments, with his songs displaying a contrasting mix of both reaching outside of, and staying within his comfort zone. Exuding confidence, he’s a young musician at the start of his career, seemingly in it for the long haul, offering memorable songs and the promise of what lies ahead.

—David Greenberger

No Trouble

Ray LaMontagne

The Egg, April 6

Somebody had to say it. As soon as Ray LaMontagne stepped on stage, the women in the sold out Swyer Theater let their presence be known. Much has been made of LaMontagne’s reluctance to engage in between-song banter, but amid declarations of love, cries of encouragement, and not-so-subtle catcalls, he wouldn’t have been able to get a word in edgewise. LaMontagne is not your run-of-the-mill heartthrob. Bearded and swaddled in flannel (he actually doubled up for his recent SNL performance), he’s got a wholesome, L.L. Bean-catalog charm that even dudes don’t mind nestling into. That’s why one of the largest rounds of applause came Monday night after one particular “I love you, Ray” was issued from an uncommonly low voice in the crowd.

Beyond sex appeal, LaMontagne spans another stylistic dichotomy. An acoustic singer-songwriter in the manner of Sam Beam (Iron and Wine), he’s built his reputation on almost Jamie Lidell-style blue-eyed soul. His is the kind of voice that demands a legendary backstory, so LaMontagne’s decision to begin making music after hearing Stephen Stills is worth noting, but it might be Van Morrison that his sound resembles closest. This was certainly the case during the opener “You’re the Best Thing,” the single from his latest, Gossip in the Grain. The song’s built to carry a horn section and back-up singers, but the three-piece backing band with whom LaMontagne tours still were able to conjure that R&B luster.

For the most part, though, an unlikely influence seemed to dominate the show. In his longest monologue of the night, LaMontagne mocked his producers’ requests to “push the soul,” and confessed he loves Hank Williams too. Filled with hovering pedal steel and steady-as-a-freight-train drum parts, the show (which drew largely from his latest album) seemed to come from south of the Mason-Dixon as much as from his native Maine.

All this, though, is tangential to the real reason why the show was sold out: LaMontagne’s voice. Whether on the yearning “Let It Be Me,” bluesy “You Can Bring Me Flowers,” or stomping “Henry Nearly Killed Me (It’s a Shame),” LaMontagne’s lyricism is secondary to a voice that begins and ends with gutsy breath. It’s a hypnotic quality, though, that might eventually allow LaMontagne to get away with lyrical murder. His tune “Meg White” (“I think you’re alright/In fact you’re pretty swell”) about the White Stripes drummer was a humorous betrayal of the unflagging earnestness he had, until then, run on. Whatever it meant, though, it was flawless.

This, too, can be said of openers the Low Anthem, whose set was as polished as their latest album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (which deserves a tip of the hat for its title alone). A mini chamber ensemble masquerading as an Americana trio, the band traded countless instruments on tune after placid tune. For them, clarinets, pump organs and alto horns are no gimmick, just the makings of gorgeous music.

—Josh Potter


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