“This is gonna be a long night,” Mayer Hawthorne said to the packed crowd at Webster Hall Thursday night after set-opener “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’,” a knee-shaking nod to the Temptations. Flashing a cheeky grin as light reflected off his thick-framed Buddy Holly spectacles, he then confessed, “I got goosebumps. I mean, c’mon, it’s New York City.”
True. But any anxiety the 31-year-old Hawthorne (born Andrew Mayer Cohen) harbored on the opening date of his U.S. tour quickly dissipated into the curtain behind him and his four-piece band, the County. The singer, a leader in the recent White Soul Boy Invasion with his SPIN-approved debut album, A Strange Arrangement, strutted around center-stage with tambourine in-hand, wooing the audience with vintage Motown melodies delivered with confidence and silky-smooth style.
He dressed the part, too. In late-70’s garb — a three-piece suit, a red tie, and matching lapels — Hawthorne floated his vocals over slow-rolling drum splashes, doo-wop bass, and slick guitar licks on standouts like the somber “I Wish It Would Rain” and the up-tempo “Maybe So, Maybe No.” There was no denying the quality of the performance — and soon the Caucasian crooner caught on, stopped the soul train, and lowered his voice from his normal falsetto to proclaim, “I love this fuckin’ city!” The crowd thundered in approval.
But despite the crack soul style and sound, Hawthorne loves hip-hop and he dropped a few bars of Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” before segueing into “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out,” the tender single off ASA. A minute into the song, Hawthorne shouted, “Stop this shit. Let’s mix it up.” His band then churned out a swampy, reggae-adaptation of “JAGWO” — normally a gentle send-off to a love-struck maiden, but now a collision of Smokey Robinson and Peter Tosh.
On a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Work To Do,” during the encore, Hawthorne’s band laid a sensual groove while the frontman belted away. With his eyes closed and his head cocked back, Hawthorne sang the song’s opening line: “I’m taking care of business, baby / I’d love to spend more time / But I got so many things to do.”
It was true. Hawthorne transformed raw nerves into a striking performance and probably would have loved to keep the crowd begging for more. But this was just the first date of a two-month-long trek. There’s a nation waiting to be serenaded — and Hawthorne is ready to take care of business.