Mayer Hawthorne: A Strangely Familiar Arrangement

I get a lot of invitations to live shows. It’s a perquisite of the job. For many of them I pass, sticking to the ones that pique my interest in some way. So, for example, when I’m offered passes to an Indigo Girls show at a local sold-out festival, I politely turn down the offer. Even though the festival is a hot ticket, the music there doesn’t speak to me. Plus, there are only so many press passes: better to leave the opportunity for someone who’d appreciate the music. Even though my small city is far from being considered a major market, we do get our share of high-profile acts. It’s a popular destination only a few hours from fairly large cities (Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh etc.), so that helps. Especially with lesser-known artists, this relatively high hip-quotient town makes for a good tour destination.

I wasn’t familiar with Mayer Hawthorne, though. His publicist is someone with whom I remain in regular contact, because the firm represents a number of up-and-coming artists, generally ones to watch. But when the regular stream of appeals and reminders about Mayer Hawthorne — of the you-gotta-check-this-guy-out variety — came across my desk, I guess my mind was somewhere else.

Mayer Hawthorne at Asheville's Orange Peel. Photo (c) Bill Kopp
Lucky for me, I noticed a clear spot on my calendar: What? A whole couple of weeks without a show? Perish that thought, I told myself. What possible show invitations have I missed? So I went back through old emails in my inbox and spotted a long string of messages about this neo-soul crooner.

I dunno, I thought. This could be the kind of stuff that’s so slick the needle won’t stay on the record (so to speak). Not really my thing, that. On the other hand, I’d probably find it exponentially more appealing than the Indigo Girls. So there’s that. I went ahead and checked out a journalists-only stream of a couple of Hawthorne’s songs. I was floored.

It’s now part of the official and widely-disseminated story that when an underground rapper (with the nom de hiphop Haircut) approached Stones Throw Records label head Peanut Butter Wolf (no, really) with a demo tape, the honcho didn’t know what to think of the guy. Haircut had a career as a member of two underground rap/hiphop collectives, Athletic Mic League and Now On. So why was this young Jewish guy from Detroit bringing Mr. Wolf (or Butter Wolf…not sure there) a demo of obscure sixties soul covers?

Well, because he wasn’t. Those songs were originals, and the artist born Andrew Mayer Cohen had indeed recorded the songs himself. With no budget to speak of, and using the most rudimentary digital home hobbyist tools imaginable, Cohen had cut a couple of original tracks that completely nailed the style, structure, sound and every other aesthetic variable of sixties soul. He played nearly all the instruments and did all the vocals. Knowing a good — if unusual — thing when he heard it, Wolf signed Cohen and subsequently released a pair of singles.

The red, heart-shaped 45rpm vinyl of “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” b/w “When I Said Goodbye” dropped in late 2008, and a follow-up single came out in April 2009. The artist now known as Mayer Hawthorne, meanwhile, recorded additional material to create an album. With some high-profile dates including a show at the 2010 Coachella festival, Hawthorne and his band the County were on their way.

But it was a slow burn. Though the full-length A Strange Arrangement hit stores in September 2009, sales didn’t take off in a huge way, and Mayer Hawthrone did not become a household name. But in fall 2010, a somewhat unlikely entity came to Hawthorne’s aid in his quest for recognition: Mazda USA.

Yes, the car company. While corporate tie-ins can be a double-edged sword, for many artists there’s often a clear upside. If one can avoid the whole sell-out vibe, the whiff of overt commerciality that often says “boring,” then there are definite advantages to a corporate hookup. And in Hawthorne’s case, he seems to be threading the needle successfully.

Mayer Hawthorne at Asheville's Orange Peel. Photo (c) Bill Kopp
As it rolled into Asheville for a date at the nationally-recognized Orange Peel, the fall 2010 tour for Mayer Hawthorne and the County exuded a feel quite different from most acts. Three large touring buses arrived outside the venue. As in every town on the itinerary, a Mazda-sponsored “meet and greet” had been organized ahead of the show. And it was at this point that our paths converged.

Admission to the meet-and-greet was primarily via contests. Local radio stations awarded a few passes, and some online contests provided a few as well. Me, I got mine because I’m a music journalist (See? That’s what I meant at the beginning of this essay). So at around 6:30pm on the day of the show, a dozen-plus of us lucky people — few of whom were familiar with Mayer Hawthorne’s music, as it would turn out — queued outside the venue.

Right near us were a bunch of people the likes of whom one does not usually see at or near the Orange Peel. A number of middle-aged white men in khaki slacks and button-down oxfords milled about, and similarly-aged women dressed in what I can only described as upscale-suburban style were in ample supply. One would more expect to see these people at nearby Biltmore Estate for a wine tasting or summer concert by the likes of John Tesh or Jimmy Buffett.

Eventually we figured it out: those people were salesmen and office staff from the nearby Mazda dealership. Okay, fair enough. We weren’t sure if they were there to push Mazdas on us VIP meet-and-greet attendees; we figured that enduring a sales pitch or two might be part of the price of meeting the artist. Discussing this possibility with some of my fellow VIPs (the tour’s designation, not ours) we hoped this would not be so. But if it was, we were all willing to play along.

As the time for entry to the club approached, a tour rep (not a Mazda guy) approached us all and handed out laminated tags of the backstage-pass variety. These were on heavy plastic with a photo of the band, and a rather discreet little “Mazda” added above the band’s logo. We were asked to put these tags on, and we were each given a pair of drink tickets. Hey, I thought, things are looking up: meeting the artist, and knocking back a few free cocktails? Not bad. While all this was happening, a young woman in catering uniform pushed a trolley of food down the sidewalk past us. Even better, I thought.

Once everyone was checked in, we were led downstairs to Pulp, the small cocktail room below the Orange Peel. As we entered the room, we saw a table with an ample spread of light hors d’oeuvres, a well-staffed bar ready to fill our drink orders, and a small sit-down table at the front of the room.

Mayer Hawthorne at Asheville's Orange Peel. Photo (c) Bill Kopp

After everyone had the opportunity to grab a quick nosh and adult beverage, our attention was requested. Mayer Hawthorne would be joining us presently. We were asked to queue up again — no big deal, as there weren’t that many of us — and were given souvenir posters. These, we were told, could be autographed if we wished. Me, I had brought the cover insert from the A Strange Arrangement CD in hopes of getting that signed instead.

When Hawthorne entered the room with his manager, I noticed that he was a pretty small, unassuming guy. Glasses, short hair. Didn’t look like a soul singer, whatever that means. Didn’t look like a rapper either. He just looked like…some guy. Roughly 30 years old.

While everyone was on a schedule, Hawthorne was quite willing to chat with each of us at some length. If you’ve ever been in any sort of autograph line, you know how it often works: hello, pleasantries, signature, and then they look over your shoulder at the next person. Not today. I asked Hawthorne if he recorded the album using analog or digital technology. The warm tones and authentic sixties vibe strongly suggested the former. But he told me that since he had no money at all when he started, he pretty much did it all on a laptop. I was impressed, and told him so. He made the usual noises about hoping I’d enjoy the show, but he clearly meant it.

Few of those Mazda types were in evidence during the meet-and-greet. A few did show up, but as it turned out, they were more or less VIP guests as well. A phalanx of tour workers — a dozen, I’d say — handled all of the constituent services for the evening. Now, the Orange Peel is a well-run operation staffed with capable and friendly people, but their level of service doesn’t fall into the concierge category. Nor should it; they have their jobs to do: getting people in the door, running sound, serving drinks etc.

But the tour workers waited on us hand and foot. They seemed genuinely committed to making sure we had a good time, had what we wanted and needed. Even more unusual — trust me on this — they knew who I was ahead of time. “Oh, you’re the writer! We’re really glad you’re here, and we hope you enjoy the show. It’s gonna be great.”

Now, you may think that’s common: management and so forth, they always suck up to relatively unknown music journalists in second-tier cities, right? Wrong. Getting the time of day is generally a Herculean task. Hell, even arriving at the venue to find your name is on the guest list is a fifty-fifty proposition at best. But these guys not only treated me wonderfully, that approach extended to all of the VIP attendees. We were truly made to feel that our presence was appreciated, and that we had actually “won” something by showing up.

Mayer Hawthorne at Asheville's Orange Peel. Photo (c) Bill Kopp
Once back upstairs, we staked out our positions in the venue. The Orange Peel holds about 950 people, and cocktail tables and stools only accommodate about 50 of those. So it was a nice touch letting us VIPs into the main venue ahead of the general public. Mayer Hawthorne and the County were the night’s headliners, to be sure, but there were three acts on the bill. It was going to be a relatively long evening, so the barstools and tables were welcome. Also welcome were the extra drink tickets I found on the floor. I thought about saving them as souvenirs, but instead put them to better and more immediate use.

Mazda had set up a number of kiosks inside the venue. One was a portable photo booth; several others had huge Mac computers and allowed users to design their own t-shirt, to be mailed to them in the coming weeks. You’d pick a design and color scheme plus some variable graphic elements, and give ’em your email address. I like, most people (I assume), used one of my throwaway email addresses (come on: you’d do the same thing). We all laughed that while we were getting to choose the front design, no mention was made of what would be on the back of the shirts. The consensus was that it’d be a huge MAZDA logo. At press time, I’m still awaiting my shirt. No problem; it’s only been days.

You may be wondering: did I ever get to hear any music? And if so, am I ever going to write about it? Yes, dear reader, and sincere thanks for your patience. But all this pre-show stuff was part-and parcel of the evening. Normally that’s not the case. One of my fellow VIPs asked me repeatedly, “Are you going to write about the people that are attending the show?” No, generally, I’m not. But, Ms. Fellow VIP, I did just mention you, though I’ve forgotten your name. So there.

After a pretty good opening act of the modern funk variety, the house PA announced that Mayer Hawthorne and the County would soon be taking the stage. All “ladies and gentlemen” and so on. While we waited, tasty selections from Hawthorne’s deep DJ catalog were played over the system. The guy’s got impeccable taste, I mused. His selections weren’t as underground as, say, those of Keb Darge, but they were still excellent.

The band came out, and they simply killed. If a song called for high energy, they delivered. Subtlety and smoothness? Check. Emotion, heartbreak, pathos? You got it. Hurt, petulance, determination? They delivered those in mass quantities, with — and this is key — heartfelt authenticity. The man himself sported what we used to call a sharkskin suit sans jacket, and those ubiquitous nerdy spectacles. But if you closed your eyes, you’d hear Smokey Robinson, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield…guys like that.

Mayer Hawthorne at Asheville's Orange Peel. Photo (c) Bill Kopp
Hawthorne doesn’t presume to possess the stage presence of those mighty artists, and he knows it. Between songs he told a brief anecdote about being mistaken for Tobey Maguire, and it’s fairly easy to imagine that happening. But onstage he delivers. In 2010 there aren’t too many opportunities to witness this style of music live, and it’s a safe bet that most of those in attendance this night had never seen any of those aforementioned influential artists in concert.

Hawthorne and the County performed most of the songs off of A Strange Arrangement, and they also gave the audience a taste of the music from the as-yet-unreleased follow-up. A cover of the Doobie Brothers‘ “What a Fool Believes” was an unexpected musical left turn, but the band managed the unthinkable: making a Doobie Brothers song cool. And in the context of the band’s set, it actually worked. Hawthorne’s original songs all have elements that connect them to songs of old — “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin'” is a close musical relative of “You Can’t Hurry Love,” to cite but one example — so the Doobies’ own proto-retro-soul (so to speak) actually fit seamlessly into the set. My friend who tagged along with me for the evening is more well-versed than me when it comes to 70s soul and funk; his take was that Mayer Hawthorne and the County sounded and felt a lot like The Dramatics. He had no way of knowing this, but one of Hawthorne’s fellow rappers in Now On is the son of one of The Dramatics, Larry “Squirrel” Demps.

Hawthorne’s high energy workout “The Ills” — perhaps the best song on an album with no weak tracks — closed the set. The song’s arrangement lends itself to getting people on the dance floor, and in this it was completely successful. Local celebrity Andie MacDowell was in attendance with her Biltmore Forest posse, and she was out there dancing with the best of ’em. (As a non-dancer, I held down my spot at the barstool at my favorite location, right near the soundboard.)

In a slightly unusual move, though Mayer Hawthorne and the County were the headlining act, they went on in the middle slot. The show was closed by The Heavy, known for their “How You Like Me Now?” and they put on a good show as well. They served as a contrast to Hawthorne in that their music is all over the stylistic map. One minute they’re Northern Soul, the next (and the one after that as well) they sound more like Living Colour.

Mayer Hawthorne at Asheville's Orange Peel. Photo (c) Bill Kopp
Hawthorne worked the merch table after his set, and chatted up anyone who wanted to talk with him. I picked up a vinyl version of A Strange Arrangement that had been remixed without the vocal tracks. “Sing Along,” Hawthorne wrote on the record’s jacket.

At the end of a long evening (six-ish to past midnight) I headed home, having enjoyed plenty of good music, a stellar live performance, and more than my share of free drinks. I also got a chance to speak with Hawthorne, and he posed for a pic with me (the last before I got a shave and a haircut, as fate would have it). It will be interesting to hear how Hawthorne follows up A Strange Arrangement; we’ll find out in 2011. Hopefully, thanks to the targeted investment of the Mazda people — not to mention the genuinely and consistent high quality of the music — Hawthorne’s modern take on classic styling is being rolled out to a wider audience.

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