I WAS THERE . . . Mayer Hawthorne @ The Knitting Factory, 10/1/09
It was an auspicious debut for the much-hyped Mayer Hawthorne at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, appearing before a sold-out crowd in his very first show in New York City. Stones Throw Records founder, DJ, and producer Peanut Butter Wolf rocked the crowd in preparation for Mayer Hawthorne with his signature video DJ set, spinning classic hip hop videos into oldies such as the Beastie Boys into The Supremes. Taking in the odd mash-up of music videos, it became very clear why the owner of such a beloved hip hop label would sign a DJ-turned-soul crooner from Detroit such as Mayer Hawthorne: he has a sound that expertly blends the modern and the old. And with a voice that’s as unique now as it would have been among the likes of Smokey Robinson and Eddie Kendricks, Detroit officially has its soul back.
With the emergence of a so-called soul revival in the mainstream, so many of these singers can feel like a bad derivative of the original. At first glance, Mayer Hawthorne and his band The County seemed to comfortably slip right into that stereotype as they stepped out on stage in matching suits and opened with “Maybe So, Maybe No,” which was a near-identical take of the Motown original by The New Holidays.
It wasn’t until the band transitioned into Mayer’s original songs that the crowd got a taste of his mischievous charm and presence on stage as well as the subtle touches of contemporary sounds and arrangements that save his music from becoming just another retro throwback. The simple, hip hop beat behind the sweetly-sung breakup song “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” proved worthy of being his first single – heart-shaped vinyl and all. Hawthorne makes no apologies for heavily borrowing from his Detroit predecessors, but rather, embraces the sound and makes the music his own.
Regardless of whether the music is old or new, the genuineness of Mayer Hawthorne’s performance was enough to change the minds of even the most cynical of music listeners, myself included. The typical stoic faces and crossed arms of Brooklyn’s music intelligentsia melted on the dance floor; bodies intertwined, and oh yes, there was love in the air. Mayer’s silky smooth falsetto on a bed of understated soul grooves is a welcome return to the feel-good music of the Motown era and nothing less than the best baby-making music that’s come out this year.