JD McPherson brings his Undivided Heart and Soul to Philly
Philadelphia has shown JD McPherson a healthy dose of brotherly love ever since he started tour in the early 2010s, having found a home with the folks at WXPN, Philly’s listener-supported radio station. The Oklahoma-born, Nashville-based rock ‘n’ roller has played several of WXPN’s Free at Noon broadcasts and has made a few appearances at XPoNential Festival through the years. He worked his way up from playing smaller clubs like Johnny Brenda’s to headlining the main stage at World Café Live, where WXPN is housed. His most recent visit to the radio station-slash-music hall occurred in November while in the midst of an extensive nationwide tour promoting his new album, Undivided Heart and Soul.
The room was full almost to capacity long before the band took the stage, laying plain McPherson’s ever-burgeoning popularity, as well as ensuring that quite a few people had the good fortune to see the opener, neo-soul singer Nicole Atkins. Full of sass and humor, with a voice that was at turns powerful and sultry, the almost-hometown girl (Atkins hails from New Jersey) held the audience in thrall with her deeply personal songs of love, loss, and redemption.
Usually, the obvious sign that a show is about to start is when the lights go out. But anyone who has seen McPherson and his band over the last five years will know that when Thelonius Monk’s stately horns begin to play over the loudspeaker, the time has come to rock and roll. That night at World Café was no exception. Accompanied by the sounds of “Abide With Me,” the band, which features McPherson on lead guitar, Jimmy Sutton on upright and electric bass, Jason Smay on drums, Ray Jacildo on keys, and Doug Corcoran on saxophone and guitar, emerged from the wings, took their customary places on the stage, and after a slow, teasing guitar strum, launched into “Bossy,” the take-no-prisoners single off his second album, Let the Good Times Roll.
From there, McPherson kept the needle pegged, slowing the tempo only once, for the haunting ballad “Hunting for Sugar,” midway through the set. But the remainder of the evening was a celebration of a form of music that, though its loss has been repeatedly, prematurely mourned, refuses to die, thanks to musicians like McPherson who serve as rock ‘n’ roll’s last bastions. While heavily featuring songs from the new album, the evening also highlighted gems from his previous releases. They came together in a wondrous conglomeration of styles and eras and influences: the rockabilly vibe on “Fire Bug” mingled with the surf rock sounds of “Desperate Love”; the soulful “Undivided Heart and Soul,” made richer for Atkins’ accompaniment, gave way to the cool bombast of “Head Over Heels.”
As well as showcasing the musical leaps that McPherson has made over the years, his live show has evolved as well. He has said in the past that they are not a jam band, but he seems to have found the ability to let his hair down a bit. The band are, and have always been, incredibly engaging and fun to watch. They pour every ounce of themselves into every concert, from Sutton’s bass-slapping to Jacildo looking so much the mad pianist behind his Hammond organ. But while he’s always drawn from his punk rock background, watching McPherson get creative with his guitar solos added a depth to the show that hadn’t previously been there.
Songs that have been played hundreds, if not thousands, of times had assumed a different, and not unwelcome, face. He seems to have grown more comfortable in his role as frontman as well, the banter with the audience coming easier, doing high-five handclaps with folks in the front row, exchanging winks with people in the crowd. As a result, the experience is even more immersive, carefree, and rewarding than it had been. Knowing their history of stellar performances, that is quite an accomplishment.
It seemed like McPherson and his band had just gotten warmed up, tearing through “Lucky Penny” (the new song that’s been making the rounds on late-night TV) and “Let the Good Times Roll,” when they took a bow, leaving the audience stunned that the end of the night had come so quickly. After a lusty call for an encore, the band obliged, treating the crowd to “Style (is a Losing Game)” and a mashup of “Bloodhound Rock” and “Wolf Teeth”, the two songs that lend themselves to the most improvisation. The night ended with a joyful rendition of the tune that put McPherson on the map and has become a modern classic, “North Side Gal.” As the rest of the band took their leave, McPherson lingered a moment longer, seeming overawed by the thunderous applause. Rare is the rock star who possesses talent and humility in equal measure, but JD McPherson has both in spades.
Coverage by Colleen Martin & Rich Russo RP Russo Photography
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