At the Biltmore Cabaret on Monday, March 10
Sometimes it’s a culmination of little things that turn a good night into something truly great. In the case of Los Angeles neo-soul man Nick Waterhouse, you can start with the fact that his red Gibson SG was connected to his Fender amp not with a wireless transmitter but with a vintage-looking white curly cord, the effect more Apollo Theater circa ’62 than technology-obsessed 2014.
On the sartorial-splendour front, the trim and bespectacled singer wore black loafers, a tight-fighting blazer over a button-up white shirt, and dress pants so impeccably creased, they were surely ironed seconds before he took the stage.
The visual treats didn’t stop there. Give the man credit for putting together a band—the Tarots—that practically dripped retro cool. Leading the charge was Paula Henderson, whose green cocktail dress, sparkling emerald shoes, fishnet stockings, and ’50s sunglasses were accessorized by a baritone sax the size of a small battleship.
Equally awesome was old-school keyboardist J.T. Thomas, who looked like the ghost of Albert Einstein, and played with the spirit of a man born and raised in Muscle Shoals.
It all added up to the kind of mini-spectacle where you were in love with Waterhouse and his band before they’d even played a note. The bonus on this clear and chilly March night was that the music was every bit as great as the people playing it.
The Biltmore was surprisingly full for a Monday, which perhaps had something to do with the folks from the East Van Soul Club helping out with the proceedings. That Waterhouse was on the same page as his hosts was made clear about halfway through the night. Right before launching into his swaggering throwback of a new single, “This Is a Game”, he made an announcement: “Thanks to the East Van Soul Club and their deejays. I make 45s for those guys.”
Waterhouse also makes 45s for those who never leave the house without their Ray-Bans, tailor-made mod suits, and hairdos that suggest time stopped right when Shindig! was the hottest show on television. Such folks were well-represented on the dance floor, along with hippie chicks in Black Flag shirts, fellows who take their fashion cues from Rodney Bingenheimer, and Freedom 55ers who gave it as good as anyone in the front row.
If the diversity in the room indicated anything, it was that no-bullshit R&B is one of those genres that cut across all boundaries. Despite his well-groomed appearance, Waterhouse’s take on the style was wonderfully unvarnished, part morphined swing (“High Tiding”), part strip-club bump-and-grind (“Dead Room”), and part northern soul (“I Can Only Give You Everything”). If you didn’t get chills when things ground to a halt in the middle of “Say I Wanna Know”, and nothing but the sound of cool-cat snapping fingers came from the stage, you’re probably dead inside.
Even though he didn’t break a sweat until about three-quarters of the way through the show, Waterhouse seemed to be having just as good a time as his audience, sharing a huge smile with his drummer after Thomas’s killer porno-soundtrack keyboard odyssey in the middle of “Don’t You Forget It”.
The night wrapped up with a ragged but spirited encore version of “Gloria”, the singer noting that he normally doesn’t do curtain calls, and so figured he’d bust out something good for the special occasion. He finished a great set off by announcing, “Over to you East Van Soul Club,” at which point the music kicked back to a golden era when Stax was the coolest label in America.
If you closed your eyes, you could almost see Nick Waterhouse.