Last night, southern magic descended upon California’s Hollywood Bowl. Jammed between the middling opening set from Lake Street Dive, a Boston-based folk-rock band with southern rock leanings, and the spectacular headliner, Trombone Shorty, the real Alabama-bred deal St. Paul And The Broken Bones stormed the stage around 9 PM. The soul collective have been steadily picking up steam across the country, and last year’s Sea Of Noise thrust them into the national spotlight in an entirely new way. Still touring on the back of that enormously soulful record, and led by their insanely talented frontman Paul Janeway — who unexpectedly has the voice of an angel — the band completely stole the show, and the hearts, of the Hollywood Bowl.
Now, it’s clear that soul — along with jazz — is a traditionally and historically Black genre, and there’s always been a bit of a problem with the winkingly titled moniker “blue eyed soul” that accompanies white artists who embrace this style. However, there is also nothing clearer in this world than the fact that Janeway’s voice was designed to sing soul; the listener can sink into his octave-spanning, golden powerhouse of a voice like it’s a long-awaited, velvety couch. He’s an undeniable talent, and even the primarily Trombone-Shorty-diehard-crowd gathered at the Bowl last night had to acknowledge his vocal persuasion.
Janeway kicked off the night in the most dramatic fashion, entering with a blue cape over his flamboyant red suit, allowing the echoes of the acapella beginning of the title track off his band’s last album to swell and fill the stadium, before busting out into his own solos. The cape came off, and Janeway’s dancing began, his physical movements are almost as joyous and cheerful as his voice, if not quite as elegant. That’s all sort of the point, though. He’s clearly aware of his own awkward, surprising fit into this world, and instead of trying to smooth it away, he embraces himself, flaws and idiosyncrasies intact, fully committing to a performance that is 100% him. This tactic f*cking works, and more musicians should lean into themselves the way he does.
Backed by the band’s incredible rhythm section — Browan Lollar (guitar), Jesse Phillips (bass), Andrew Lee (drums), Al Gamble (keys), and Allen Branstetter (trumpet) — at one point in the evening, Janeway let the audience know: “I’m going to break your heart,” and then began to perform a ballad so somber, with notes so high, that the audience around me was laughing in astonishment, utterly taken with his ability to catapult himself fully into the mood and mode of the song. Our laughter was to keep the tears at bay, though, the song itself was exceedingly sad, and he made it so.
But more laughter followed as he began the final closing antics of the band’s set, throwing a single golden boot from the half moon wall in front of the stage, where he had been weaving in and out of the orchestra seats. Now, with feet unevenly clad, he clambered up the stairs and laid in the middle of an aisle, smack dab in the middle of the Bowl, still belting the song at hand with mind-blowing, passionate power. By the time he made his way back down to the stage, and took his bows with the rest of his band, the Bowl had fallen head over heels in love with this man and his music. It was the kind of concert that you remember for the rest of your life, it was truly glorious.
If you thought that Trombone Shorty would have any trouble following up an opener that rambunctious and charismatic, though, you’d be utterly wrong. Clad in an all-white suit, and oozing handsomeness and charm, Trombone Shorty brought the house down with his signature blend of New Orleans traditional music, along with a medley of well known pop songs and the kind of galloping jazz and blues that makes even the most prim Angeleno let loose with abandon. At times, his band got so heavy that I began to wonder if perhaps Trombone Shorty would make an excellent metal frontman, too. It seems like there’s not a single genre of music he wouldn’t excel in.
So, if St. Paul And The Broken Bones is such a striking act because of how little it seems like they would fit, Trombone and his crew are even more striking because of how completely they embody the traditional music that is and will remain their heritage. There is nothing lovelier than watching people live and breathe the musical history that forms its own community, and his performance was also one that will live on in my own personal archives as a very treasured night.
Shorty is already working his way into the realm of legends — if you get the chance to catch his live act, please do so with speed. Not only was his own performance last night quite an astonishing follow-up to St. Paul’s, but the yin and yang of the two proved, yet again, that celebrating the immensely different impact of artists as diverse and different as these two is part of what makes music such an important and beautiful part of our country. No matter what anyone says about the greatness of our country, it was right there last night, in the contrast and the connection between these two bands.