Curtis Harding Takes Los Angeles On A Sonic Voyage Through Soul, Blues & R&B Review+Photos: Curtis Harding @ El Rey 5/31/18
LOS ANGELES, CA- There’s a beauty and romance in the way soul music continues to rebirth itself into the popular consciousness. It’s not like it ever died. You can certainly trace a progression and evolution over the last 60 years, but the emergence and reemergence of artists who pay direct homage to soul at its mid-20th century zenith has been a blessing.
One of the most prominent and mysterious figures of the new school is Curtis Harding. The night he headlined the El Rey, he stepped on stage in a cloud of pure chill. Sunglasses, white tee, jeans, and a cardigan. The love child of Sam Cooke and Jeffrey Lebowski. No frills appearance. Stripped down to the essentials. A fashion dictated by comfort and function. An expression of restraint that allowed all focus to be drawn away from the visual and committed to the audible – to the power of his voice. Because his voice is the tool. It’s so sharp, so compelling that it makes you wonder about all the superlative talents that have been steeped, like Curtis, in the gospel tradition.
When you’re a young kid, maybe the simultaneous exposure to music and God, or an engagement with faith through the pathway of music, maybe that activates something almost superhuman in the vocal cords that remains with you for the rest of your life. Because whether they stay with the church or not, the guys with that gospel formation have a combination of tone, range, and vocal control that seems to have its own mutated or, rather, uniquely evolved DNA. In Curtis, it’s tight. Crisp. Powerful.
But I said Curtis is mysterious and I meant that. There’s something elusive about him. Not so much the quality of that gritty soulful voice but something about the man himself. Sometimes, it feels like he’s hiding behind his own guitar. As if the simplicity of the t-shirt and jeans are camouflage to help him blend into the background. The sunglasses, a zorro mask, you know, to maintain a little anonymity up there. Like he’d almost rather be back in the room where he and his guitar sat together and dove deep down the rabbit hole to discover, uncover, and write these songs. Or maybe he’s perfectly chill being up on stage but wants YOU to feel like you’re in that room with him.
I might be mistaking mystery for intimacy … perhaps it’s a beautiful combination of the two. Because there’s no fear onstage. His 2017 album is titled “Face your Fears” and he seems to do that pretty seamlessly. He’s comfortable and in command at the microphone, as any master of the craft would be when getting an entire concert hall full of people turned on. It’s more like he doesn’t care – but in the best way possible. He’s gonna be there, in that room, on that stage, playing music. Either way. He’s stoked you’re there too. But he’d keep going without you. And that allows the spotlight – both visual and audible – to expand outward across the stage, giving the audience a chance to dial into and dig on some of the other things happening.
There’s the solid beats and rhythms of the drummer with his blowout comb blond afro, throwing shades of Mitch Mitchell circa the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Then there’s the backup singer. Who is this woman? She is so damn talented. I did couple searches on the googles and found some photos but couldn’t dig up a name. When she and Curtis sing “Till the End”, she provides the perfect blend of vocal sexuality and ruthless shit-talking that makes the song so subtly hilarious.
And that’s another thing. Curtis is a funny dude. Watch any of his videos. There’s almost always a thread of not so subtle irony, the kind you find from people that are content to laugh at their own jokes, whether you think they’re funny or not. Trying not to take anything too seriously…or taking seriously the effort to get the rest of us to not take ourselves too seriously… Ultimately, on this evening at the El Rey, as Harding’s sonic voyage took the audience through the history of soul, blues, and R&B, it brought us very much fully into the present.
Maybe that’s it. Curtis wants to go deep into this homage to his precursors, he wants to honor the skills he’s cultivated in the realm of soul, but he wants to do that without getting pigeonholed into any expectation of genre or style. Because he’s kinda weird. Could be an Atlanta thing. Dude sang and wrote with Cee Lo Green. There’s some of the soulful irreverence of Cody Chestnutt. It’s like the Ramone’s. The same way they were a punk band from New York that thought it made sense to work elements of doowop and soul into some of their songs, Curtis is a soul singer that shouldn’t have to apologize for being a little bit of a punk. Don’t put the guy in a box. Don’t assume the cardigan makes him some variation of “The Dude” because he’s very much The Man. 2014’s “Soul Power” and 2017’s “Face Your Fear’ firmly solidify his credentials as a leader of soul’s continued reemergence into the popular consciousness. But don’t try to anticipate where he’s gonna take it from here. Genre is a baseline from which to deviate and Harding’s ability to pivot from the baseline and take it in any one of a hundred directions, that’s his genius.