In a city as susceptible to breathless hype as LA can sometimes be, it's hard to imagine a show not being packed. When was the last gig where the guest list line didn't stretch around the corner, while lesser punters pay top-dollar on Craigslist to see (and be seen) at the hottest concert in town? It was with these expectation that I breezed easily into a half-full El Rey theater on Saturday to catch Jamie Lidell on his second lap through town in 2010. And it felt awkward, like trying to enjoy a meal in an empty restaurant.
Of course, once I settled in and recognized a few faces, the pleasantness of not being stuffed ass-to-elbow in a overly warm concert hall began to show it's own ample charms. Also delightful was the realization that this was perhaps the oldest concert crowd I've been around in some time. Most musicians (and many Lidell fans) will probably twist their face at this truth. But they shouldn't because a) it shows off those wrinkles, and b) after five albums in ten years, there's nothing wrong with a 36-year-old musician playing for fans his own age.
What gets awkward is when musicians try to pander to fans half their age. Jamie Lidell might be a spaz, but even hitting the stage in a shiny gold suit and black muscle-tank with the words THE END printed boldly across the front, awkward never reared it's uncomfortable head.
The bold-face news about this tour is that after years performing alone on stage, Lidell has decided to spend 2010 on the road with a three-piece band–Jake Aron (guitars/bass), Ludwig Persik (perc/synth) and Guillermo Brown (drums)–who give Lidell the freedom to indulge his inner front-man. What they failed to do is give him the usual heft one expects when solo acts decide to split the money multiple ways. In fact, the first 30-minutes onstage saw the foursome stroll through songs mainly off Lidell's latest album, Compass, with little zeal. Hips swayed, and Lidell's Brit-eyed soul shout was well intact, but the affair was beginning to feel fairly anemic for a Saturday night out.
While eyeing my watch and the door, I didn't catch the backing band leave the stage. Suddenly, the venue shook with the sound of Lidell buzzing his lips into a microphone–amplified through a table of electronic equipment that had sat fallow in the middle of the stage. Sample, loop, sample, loop, sample loop–Lidell spat, hiccupped, and “tee-hee'd” his way to a human click track that had the soundman grabbing at faders to protect the speakers. A few hollers arose from the crowd.
For the loyalist in attendance, this was the Lidell they'd come to see. These finely finessed improvisations of human clicks, yelps and honks, modulated with the precision of someone who probably spent more time in his youth with a sampler than with girlfriends, have always been Lidell's money shot. This was suddenly a whole new show.
Having found his element, Lidell took full advantage. Several minutes of improvisation found its way to a full audience sing-along of “Another Day,” with Lidell mouthing an extended bass jam while those in attendance dutifully clapped the beat and sang the refrain. The moment lasted far longer than even the singer could have expected, and certainly with more fervor than is found when even stadium-filling superstars thrust the mic above the crowd and cup a hand to their outstretched ear. There were much livelier events this weekend, but at this moment, the old adage held true: it's not the size of the crowd; it's how you use it.