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Nick Waterhouse Brings R&B Dance Moves to the Firebird

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From his 2012 acclaimed debut “Time’s All Gone,” to his newest collection “Holly,” Nick Waterhouse fluidly extracts the best of vintage music, from analog recording and vintage gear, to honey-coated back-up vocals and low-end saxophones — but in doing so he creates something uniquely his own.

In all its finger-snapping, corner-pocket sentimentality, it’s the fidelity to the sounds that came before that makes this the real McCoy. More so than St. Paul and the Broken Bones, whose showmanship is really the cornerstone, or Fitz and the Tantrums, where soul music is secondary to the pop-anthems, Waterhouse focuses on a deeper appreciation of the genre. On Monday night at the Firebird, he gave St. Louis fans a taste of what he can do.

Local St. Louis outfit and all-around hipster fashion show Brother Lee & The Leather Jackals set the scene. “Who came to have a good time?” lead singer/guitarist Josh Eaker asked the crowd. Though there were few people at the time, a few hoots and hollers were tossed about. The band kicked off its piano and fuzz-induced bluesy rock with a heartbeat from the late ’70s — something akin to Sylvain Sylvain and the Criminals, with a host of references to sounds from the past 40 years. Even the way they dressed referenced various time periods: Eaker like it’s 1970, bass player Jared Dickinson like a punk rocker. The button-down keyboarder looked out of place, compared to the rest of the members of the overtly hip band. They played one of their best songs, “South City Blues,” a Dr. Dog-style romp with punk-rock shoutouts that make you want to fight for your PBR with brass knuckles.

Brother Lee & the Leather Jackals are a great live band, whose energy and camaraderie on stage is absolutely contagious. Eaker’s guitar playing is up to snuff, and the band’s songs are satisfying in all the right places; however, their showmanship does tend to get in the way of their performance. They lost me at their cover of “The Weight.” I think it might be because a lot of people have been covering that song lately (Mavis Staples just closed out the Newport Folk Festival with it). It was a daring attempt, filled with bravado, but somehow, lacking — it wasn’t the right cover for this group. They did their best to get the crowd motivated by ending with a raucous cover of “Stand By Me,” before clearing out and making room for Waterhouse.

It was the strangest thing. There were really only a handful of people in the club until Nick Waterhouse and company took the stage. Fans began to materialize out of the shadows the moment the band launched into its opening salvo. All of a sudden, I realized I had to move closer if I was to get a good view.

Waterhouse kicked off “(If) You Want Trouble,” with a B-52s-style guitar line, followed by bass sax rattling the ceiling tiles. The crowd moved up the front of the stage and nearly everyone began dancing. Some had quieter dance moves. A lean back and forth, a subtle snapping of the fingers. Others got wild, as though they were dancing in a go-go cage, like their lives depended on it. Waterhouse saw the enthusiasm and fed off it.

Next came one of his better-known hits, “I Can Only Give You Everything,” featuring back-up singer Brittany Manor, who was dressed like dynamite in a little black dress and banging a tambourine. But what an amazing singer. Her vocals really make the grooves fly. The song exuded all the slithering sex appeal of a cigarette advertisement. Fitz who?

The group played a few tracks from the new album as well, including “High Tiding” and “It No. 3,” the latter being a sultry blend of surf-riff and swing, while Waterhouse’s low-key vocals ride the wave. Saxophonist Paula Henderson made her presence known with some killer soloing.

By the song “Raina,” the crowd was dreaming of west coast sunsets and golden beach raves. Waterhouse even showcased a brand new song, “It’s Time,” that started with keyboardist J.T. Thomas playing a Ray Charles-esque keyboard line at the beginning, solidifying the dance floor, before the rest of the band jumped in. They ended their set with “Say I Wanna Know” and “Some Place,” the first two tracks from Waterhouse’s debut album and a reminder that everything goes back to the beginning.

With a professional thank you, the musicians departed the stage, but not before being summoned back for more. They simply could not be stopped. When they returned, they played a rousing cover of the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard,” a slightly obscure cover, but nonetheless a perfect complement to the sound that Waterhouse emulates and makes his own.


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