The nostalgist R&B singer Nick Waterhouse brought a huge backing band out for his album-release set at the Center for the Arts Eagle Rock last night -- three sax players, two backing vocalists, two drummers, a bassist and keyboardist, by my count. Dressed in era-perfect suits and dresses for Waterhouse’s svelte sound, they played like star students of Stax’s brass sunshine and James Brown’s funky drumming.
Any sold-out set that sends L.A.’s cool kids back to the early R&B staples is worthy, and the 25-year-old Waterhouse’s aesthetic -- vintage soul refracted through three decades of hip-hop’s sampling of vintage soul -- looks and sounds absolutely great. But last night’s show couldn’t shake a small feeling that it was like listening to Sam Cooke wearing gloves. Waterhouse is such a good student of R&B that sometimes you just want to loosen his tie and make him feel it more.
Waterhouse’s debut for the ever-more-essential Innovative Leisure imprint, “Time’s All Gone,” relies on using simple elements perfectly: tight, spare horns; a little gain on his vocals; tasteful guitar soloing in the breaks between choruses. The Center for Arts is a lovely venue, but its acoustics can wash out a large band that needs precision to shine.
Those are small quibbles when a band can blow the roof off, and Waterhouse’s ensemble played with the seasoning of a Motown group that’s had 30 years to perfect their hits. “I Can Only Give You Anything” had a finger-snapping swagger; the street-fighting taunt of “If You Want Trouble” felt totally endearing. He keeps his guitar talents muted on record, but live Waterhouse peels off runs to crack your horn-rims.