Review by Kara Gheldof
Dressed to the nines in his sharp suit vest, his bandmates color-coded to match their lead singer, Mayer Hawthorne takes a break from singing a few songs into his set to address the camera flashes aimed his way. “I’ll tell you what,” he says, “This is photo time. All of you get your photos in right now.” Hands on hips and faux-contemplative grin plastered on his face, Hawthorne poses cheekily for his audience while tinkering elevator music plays in the background. “Now put those cameras and phones away and act like you’re at a concert, interacting with people!”
Not so shockingly, the audience complies, and not a single photo is snapped for the rest of Hawthorne’s set. It really is impossible not to immerse yourself in this Ann Arbor-born musician’s live shows. There’s something about his incomparable style—a throwback to Motown and soul of decades past—that compels even the most postured music fan to move their hips to the beat.
Mayer Hawthorne’s last trip to Detroit in September had him returning to the Majestic Theater, opening for another anachronistic funk duo, Chromeo. The show took place shortly before the release of Hawthorne’s second full-length album How Do You Do, a breezy and complementary follow-up to 2009’s A Strange Arrangement. Hawthorne draws deeply from Motown roots and he and his fellow cast of performers, simply called "The Country," would not sound out of place if plucked from this era and dropped into the sixties music scene. How Do You Do continues their tradition of blending soul, jazz, funk and blues together to create forty minutes of music that makes you want to move your body, whether you’re on the dance floor or trapped in traffic on your daily work commute.
There are only a couple of tracks on Mayer Hawthorne’s sophomore album that take you away from the moment and make you remember what decade this is. The third track “Can’t Stop,” which features a singing—not rapping—Snoop Dogg, is a reminder of the inroads Hawthorne is making into mainstream music, as well as his ability to blend seamlessly with other genres, but it is not the best track on How Do You Do. “A Long Time” is sure to be a fan favorite for live performances, a doleful yet oddly optimistic saga of the "Motor Town" and the better days we yearn to see. “And we’ll return it to its former glory, but it just takes so long/It’s gonna take a long time / It’s gonna take it but we’ll make it work,” Hawthorne croons, and it’s almost enough to make you believe that music alone can save Detroit from its suffering. And who knows? Perhaps the music scene will save the Motor Town. At the very least, it’s comforting to feel like there is some hope for a return to that "former glory" after all.
Where Mayer Hawthorne’s first album focused a bit more on heartbreak and hurt, How Do You Do projects a more optimistic vibe overall. The songs “Hooked” and “Finally Falling” are upbeat and fun and others clearly present Hawthorne as the cool, casual guy he is. Maybe he’s not quite ready for love, but he’s well on his way, and this soundtrack to the single life is about as "feel good" as it gets. It’s not just that Hawthorne translates this energy to the stage flawlessly; the live shows actually improve upon the sound. Do yourself a favor and get yourself a ticket the next time Mayer Hawthorne is in town. Grab a friend, put your dancing shoes on, and just let the nostalgia take over.
© Kara Gheldof, 2011