Artists like Anderson East, an Alabama rock-and-soul singer with a voice so startling and strong that it seems like the product of Greek mythology, are so singular that you almost have to grade them on a different curve.
For parallels, think of names like Whitney Houston or Amy Winehouse or Freddie Mercury; singers with pipes coated in brass, polished with velvet and powered by Tesla coils. You’d drop everything to listen to them read assembly instructions to an IKEA catalog, so the songwriting behind their creative works could be so-so and no one would put up much of a fuss.
East – born Michael Cameron Anderson – has channeled his vocal talents in a heartland direction and at this early stage of his career is in a vein something like what we’d get if Joe Cocker had more finesse and was aiming for the lyrical style of early Jason Isbell. Which is not a bad place to be.
East kicked off his “Austin City Limits” television performance Friday with his cover of Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces,” a move that drew a distinct picture of where East is coming from stylistically. East’s interpretation turned Nelson’s sparse and forlorn playing into a more tortured picture of a singer turned inside out by his missteps, with backup singers and horns adding color and a church revival atmosphere.
From there much of East’s set kept with the white bread church singer feel, even if the lyrical themes dominated by romance realized and lost was firmly secular. Whether leaned back and roaring or bending forward for a smooth croon, East’s pure vocal power and control were the highlight early on while he mostly played the empty-armed romantic looking for The One.
Another highlight throughout the night was piano player Philip Towns, who grabbed the spotlight several times with colorful layered solos, including three of them alone on “Learning,” a song that stretched to nearly 10 minutes and proves the band would acclimate well in the jam band world if so moved.
The most thematically interesting turn of the 80-minute performance came in the last third, when a pair of minor-chord songs – “Girlfriend” and “All On My Mind” – saw the mood turn sinister and East taking on the role of the other man in a love triangle and a lover who knows he’s mixed up with a quintessentially bad girl. With a string quartet on hand to add even more dramatic tones, those songs saw East playing something of a villain or bad boy, showing even more swagger and confidence.
That change of tone made the night’s final few songs – especially a tune like “Satisfy Me” that is is an airtight example of how a rock-meets-soul song should be constructed – feel more human, like they were coming from a performer who can exhibit and embrace the light and dark of the human condition.
And, lest we forget, has the kind of voice to make just about anything work.
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