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Live: Nick Waterhouse at Center for the Arts Eagle Rock

May 11, 2012 |  5:16 pm

Nick Waterhouse

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.  

Waterhouse is definitely a star, albeit a quiet one that could take cues from Mayer Hawthorne’s sense of humor or Fitz’s rangy stage presence (speaking of which, if you invested in L.A. white-guy R&B stocks a few years ago, you can retire on that by now). Even his quite-lively soul-man screams felt a little studious, like he knew that letting loose was part of the act.

It’s an interesting contrast to contemporary R&B, which has gone totally digital and electronics-heavy, or narcotic and menacing. Waterhouse is a peerless historian of his sound and delivers it with a modern low-key cool. Yet the point of rhythm and blues is dancing, sweating, and sex appeal -- not necessarily sonic archiving.  

But Waterhouse has found his sound young, and if he can loosen up his dutiful-pupil instincts, he'll have a long career of illuminating the past. Once he gets on tour full-time, a little bit of hard living and a little less crate-digging should do the trick.    

-- August Brown


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Photo: Matthew Reamer