James McCartney At The Hotel Cafe, Wednesday May 3rd 2017
Writing honest and heartfelt music is always an exercise in boldness and courage, but this has to be even more significant and palpable when you are Paul McCartney’s son, and in this case, the task weighs a ton.
On Wednesday night, I learned that James McCartney was playing an intimate show at the Hotel café, a stop of his Marshmallow Maiden Tour across America, so I decided to go at the last minute… it’s not every day that you can check out the progeny of rock ‘n’ roll royalties, although I had already the chance to see Sean Lennon and Dhani Harrison! James was the last Beatle’s son missing to my collection.
You could feel bitter or envious when your father sells out stadium tours after stadium tours and you play at the intimate Hotel Café. However, there was not an ounce of this in the coolness of James McCartney’s attitude, he played a very laid back acoustic set with his friend Stephen Howard on guitar, and the affair was low key as there was not even a drummer with them. However, it was not the confessional performance type either, the guitar was shining and very loud, the strumming bold and vibrant during the catchy and affirmative ‘Too Hard’, while James’ vocals went from a upbeat bright tone to a powerful howl, especially during ‘Waterfall’, a song which was inspired by his mother’s memories. Sure you could hear pieces of his father here and there in the melody, as ‘Too Hard’ sounded like a sort of ‘Band on the Run’ with layered guitars and rock brilliance, at least it could have been the kind of song you’d want to run free with. The closeness with his father’s soft spot for sweet melodies was more obvious with ‘Ring a Ring o-’Roses’, a song received by a collective ‘awww’ from the crowd, this one was very sweet, just like the last one they played, the very heartfelt-sounding ‘Peace and Stillness’.
Between songs, James, who rarely smiled, gave us some good examples of his great British humor, ‘It sounds like a band of wolves,’ he joked with his friend Stephen. He obviously said this mostly for the room, and made it sound like a private thing between the two men, who seemed to be very close… ‘It sounds a little bit like the Everly Brothers’, he also added with a dry wit.
And even though he would want to make Paul McCartney completely disappear, the poor guy is cursed with a real resemblance to his father, so it’s close to impossible to forget about it…. Plus, he is probably very aware that a significant number of people who were in the room came because they wanted to see the progeny of a Beatle. At the end, I don’t know if he did or didn’t want us to forget about Paul McCartney, he often sounded like him, probably non intentionally, but tried something different with a song like ‘Alice’ and many more unexpected to experimental guitar strumming detours, flirting with deconstructed weirdness and ending to be more edgy than anything you would expect from a Beatles’ son
If some other songs were more forgettable (‘You and Me’) they were executed with an equal passion and this bright big voice of his, which reached another level of powerhouse during the cleansing ‘Denial’. But it was only when he did ‘Wisteria’ and ‘Peyote Coyote’ that I got it, he could be another version of Black Francis (with Macca’s face and voice) playing raging-grungy songs with a visceral and cathartic delivery. At this point, it was a long way from the Beatles, but when you know that his last album ‘The Blackberry Train’, (he played 8 songs from it last night) was engineered by Steve Albini, best known for his work with Nirvana and the Pixies, it makes perfect sense.
There was loudness, however, he was the quietest person in the room during songs, and he could also deliver calm and serenity during the singing, in particular when he switched to piano for two songs, still accompanied by Stephen on a more subtle and beautiful guitar.
Genes are strong and you certainly can’t get away from them, it’s a curse and a gift, much more a gift in James’ case. It could be another cliché to say that he is trying to do his own thing, but this is precisely what he does. In a recent interview, he gave a really honest answer while weighing the pros and the cons to live in the shadow of such a giant: ‘May be people have preconceptions of me. On the other hand, it’s very inspirational.’ And this seems to be the best idea of James’ personality you can get, no drama necessary, it’s a very composed and intelligent answer, and all the drama seems to be in the music.
Ring a Ring o-’Roses
You and Me
Peace and Stillness