Huntington Beach at the turn of the century is a long way from Memphis at the tail end of the 1950’s, but you would never be able to tell by looking at Nick Waterhouse.
With his horn-rimmed frames, buttoned-up Brooks Brothers suit, and clean-cut crop, the 25 year-old southern California native has considerably less in common with the skate-punk slackerism of his own generation than he does with the scotch-&-water swank of his parents’. On stage at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles last Sunday night, Waterhouse continued to look every bit the part of vintage soulman.
Backed by a dynamite eight-piece ensemble – drums, bass, congas, two female singers, two keyboards, two saxophones, occasional trombone – he also managed to capture the smoke-filled sound of an early Satellite Records single, fleshing out his band’s grooves with smooth guitar lines and an array of vocal twists that ranged from squeaky catcalls to soft croons.
His first full-length – this year’s ‘Time’s All Gone‘ – was a tape-cut lesson in organic live-in-the-studio recording, so it was no question that his mixture of Motown melodies and T-Bone Walker rhythm-&-blues would translate so easily in front of an audience.
The jazzy swing of ‘Don’t You Forget It‘ and the raw Kings Of Rhythm energy of ‘(If) You Want Trouble‘ both proved immediately dance-worthy, but it was the simple, seductive march of ‘Say I Wanna Know‘ that best encapsulated the record’s old-school mystique. With its brassy bounce and clever male-female exchanges, it had that loose, night-time-is-the-right-time vibe of an Atlantic-era Ray Charles take, right down to a spotlight-stealing, Margie Hendricks moment from vocalist Erin Jo Harris.
Waterhouse is neither a wildly dynamic frontman nor a show-stopping guitarist, yet he is clearly a talented producer and bandleader, so what he lacks in sheer creativity he makes up for with a bookish attention to detail and an unwavering dedication to his particular aesthetic.
Whether it was the blink-&-you’ll-miss-it solo buried within ‘Is That Clear‘ or the frantic yelps during a juiced-up version of his breakout track ‘Some Place‘, it was obvious that if nothing else the man does know when and how to pick his spots.
This was the last stop on a North American tour and a homecoming one at that, so there was a noticeable sense of relief that gave the entire set a celebratory atmosphere, as if the entire crew bypassed the party and went straight to the after-party. Garage rocker du jour Ty Segall sat in on drums for a surf-lounge run through the debut’s title track, while opening act the Allah-Las ambled onstage to team up for a ramshackle encore of The Rolling Stones’ ‘It’s All Over Now‘.
For a guy often knocked for pandering too much to the past, Waterhouse looked increasingly comfortable with the present as the night went on. Given the evident admiration of his peers and the general excitement of the crowd, it all of the sudden wasn’t that hard to see past the whole adman attire thing and wonder if just maybe he was never even that out-of-time after all.