James McCartney impresses at NYC club debut:
The face was awfully familiar. The main attraction at the tiny Rockwood Music Hall in New York on Wednesday night had the same small, hooked nose, slight pout and inquisitive eyes we’ve all seen on albums and magazine covers. IfJames McCartney sat next to you on a train, there’s a good chance you’d do a double-take, convinced you’d stepped into a time machine.
That James looks like a blond and balding version of Wings-era Paul McCartney is a blessing and a curse. There are colossal professional benefits to being the only son of Paul and Linda McCartney: it makes people queue up around the block to catch the first New York club gig by a singer-songwriter without much of a public profile. But it’s also inconceivable that those people can listen without prejudice. Perhaps this explains why it has taken James — who also performs in Asbury Park on Friday — is only starting his music career in earnest now, at 34.
It is certainly not because he lacks talent. He has a terrific singing voice that is quite different from his dad’s. His tenor — telegraph-clear and sharp as a switchblade — possesses just enough grit to give his pop-rock melodies traction. It radiates melancholy; quiet toughness, too. Backed by a four-piece combo, McCartney applied that voice to 10 original songs; these were of varying quality, but none was less than interesting. He also hit the bulls-eye with a spooky cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man” that was hard not to hear as a commentary on his relationship with his father.
The set, which lasted about 45 minutes, did not strain to impress: McCartney discharged his compositions with little fanfare, placing the emphasis squarely on the songs. On a small stage, surrounded by adoring Beatlemaniacs, curiosity seekers and those impressed by his EPs “Available Light” and “Close at Hand,” he seemed to drift in and out of the grip of a private experience.
Paul McCartney co-produced the EPs but didn’t sing or play on them. They sound like the Beatles only inasmuch as every pop-rock band of any stature has been influenced by the stylistic innovations of Paul and his bandmates. James McCartney is Beatles-influenced in the most direct way possible, but the only song of his that could really be called Beatlesque — the bouncy guitar rave-up “Moonstar” — sounds more like a mid-’70s George Harrison composition than anything from the Lennon-McCartney songbook. (“Spirit Guides,” another ’70s throwback, is reminiscent of Wings.)
McCartney led his band through energetic versions of “Moonstar” and “Spirit Guides” at Rockwood, but these songs were outliers. Most of the set deepened the haunted, otherworldly atmosphere that hovers over McCartney’s recordings. “My Friend” and “The Sound of My Voice” — which was decorated by synth xylophone, cymbal washes and shakers — felt like Neil Finn at his moodiest. “Mix” even displayed a grunge influence. McCartney played acoustic and electric guitar and piano, and excelled at each.
The music is in place; the showmanship is not. McCartney barely addressed the audience and did not return for an encore, even though the crowd clearly wanted one. He rarely smiled and at times looked like he was fighting an impulse to flee. His jacket was festooned with patches and held together by safety pins. The “A” on his red armband was too neatly drawn to stand for anarchy. It looked like a kid’s punk rock halloween costume, and undercut his authority.
These are minor quibbles. If McCartney continues to make his music public, he’ll surely figure out how to address them. He’s done the hard part already. Against long odds, he’s developed a personal voice. He stands in an enormous shadow and always will. But at Rockwood, we saw an artist who was coming into full possession of himself.
Tris McCall: firstname.lastname@example.org