22-year-old blues singer Robert Francis performed as part of a three musician line-up at the Wiltern Saturday, and had a tough space to fill among Grace Potter and Brett Dennen. The fans dug all of them separately despite the non-sequitur of the bill.
The line-up brought out an assortment of fans and talent. Dennen, Potter and Francis all share intrinsic vocal skills and intonation, but with Francis things deviate further. What sets him apart from many performers is an honesty that permeates bones and tissue.
Francis whispers soft and cracks screams, his voice galloping through feverish slow-blues-sighed abrasions. He's young, but rarely sounds that way; mostly as he caterwauls like a righteous old blues man. His two talented sisters, Juliette and Carla Commagere, sang back-up vocals on select songs, including his new single, “One by One,” and a throbbing cover of the Rolling Stones' “Wild Horses.” Francis recently signed to Atlantic and is setting out on his next big tour, so expect more from the Ry Cooder protege; if it's not a headlining bill at the Wiltern shortly — which it should be — then he at least has earned a much longer set than the rationed 25 minutes he got Saturday.
What came after — Grace Potter — walked, looked, felt and sounded like Stevie Nicks meets Britney Spears meets Peg Bundy on a play date with Jessica Rabbit and Melody Gardot. But probably the most stunning drummer I've ever witnessed, Matt Burr (and his mustache), kind of stole that show.
He was playing with Potter, who is a total diva, rarer than most; her bona fide musicianship ups the ante, and unhinged her captivated fans with a Flying-V guitar and Wurlitzer keys. She delivered a strange mix of psycho synth, pop, gospel hymn, and Kiss-like glam-o, complete with a full band drum-orgy during their closing song “Medicine.” Potter's stiletto legs and sequined little dress could have fit her right in to a ZZ-Top late 80's “Legs” video, and she bopped around baiting her panting crowd.
After Grace Potter and the Nocturnals stomped out an hour-long set, what appeared a six-foot-tall, twelve-year-old in a Santa hat who danced like a Dr. Seuss caricature, was actually Brett Dennen; he came with his usual moves and flare, yet this time — somehow — was very Cat-in-the-Hat-meets-Vampire Weekend.
Dennen had some sort of a merrymaking plan, which may have made more sense considering this was a holiday stage show — except that no one knew about it in advance. Evidently we were all supposed to bring gifts to swap with a neighbor. The ones who did not bring a gift, were commanded by Dennen to “kiss their neighbor.” This turned into a giant crowd-kissing orgy. A little rough on the comfort zones, Dennen's typically known for his idealism and candor. It might be only a matter of time before he's Disney's next preferred soundtrack artist, or the next President of the United States, running with his most recent album title as slogan: Hope for the Hopeless.