“If we don’t get the young peoples into this, the Blues is all gonna leave.” Thus spoke Big Jack Johnson, who electrified Delta blues in the 1960’s – he was talking about the bayous of Mississippi, so he may be surprised (or horrified) that the reinvention of blissed-out, amped-up R&B has instead been carried out in part by a collection of white dudes from the West Coast and England. Creating new old sounds is a crowded field, with Mayer Hawthorne and Jamie Lidell belting out vintage soul and blues tracks along side Aloe Blacc and Rafael Saadiq, but if you wanted to see who could be crowned king of the newbie Booker T. and the M.G.’s set, the downstairs of the 6th & I last Thursday would have been a safe place to start.
Nick Waterhouse, at 25, is not whom you’d expect to see behind the voice and music on his debut album Time’s All Gone. He’s been described as having the face of an engineering student, but he’s got the sheer musical talent of some of the greats who’ve long passed on. Bringing his band with him from San Francisco, Waterhouse rolled out with an easy nonchalance, announcing "Hey, everybody, this is our first trip across the country to play,” before he and his Tarots tore into a short 70-minute set that flung about as much sexy as the crowd could handle – everyone in the entire basement had on glasses (including both attending CGers). Turns out you should have bought stock in horn rims instead of blowing all that cash on the Facebook IPO.
Starting with a spring-loaded rendition of “Say I Wanna Know,” the two back-up singers were as prevalent as Waterhouse’s lead, with both an alto and baritone sax driving the backbone of the evening. “Some Place,” which Waterhouse dedicated to D.C.’s Billy Stewart, was the best track of the night, and was also one of Waterhouse’s first recordings. The entire band was tight, and anyone who wasn’t sweaty by the end of that one was quite possibly dead. In the middle of “I Can't Give You More Than What I Got,” Waterhouse delved into a clear, coiled up guitar solo that broke loose at the end, delivering on the thrills of its initial promise. He also delivered some damn witty banter along the way, and it was difficult to fix the disconnect between how this guy looks and the sounds that come out of him – he’s straight-up nerd. A nerd who is cursing his head off and playing music that makes you want to rip off your clothes, and those of that guy standing next to you as well. Whew.
While every song currently on the radio/Pandora/Glee soundtrack yells “sex,” but rarely makes you feel like having any, Nick Waterhouse and his Tarots’ performance blows in like a breath of fresh air – a breath of retro, sexy, sexy fresh air. His music is a direct throwback to every awesome thing that ever came out of the 50’s and 60’s, and listening to his show you understand completely why parents were scared shitless of rock and roll back then. Stand too close to the speakers, and all that crinoline under your poodle skirt may just catch on fire. You know, because of the burning loins and all. That such a sexy little outfit was performing in the basement of a building that’s been home to so much religion - 6th & I was originally a conservative synagogue, then an A.M.E. church, and is now a non-denominational Jewish community arts center – well, look up “irony” kids, because this is actually it.
He announced the last song to a collective nooooooooo from the crowd, and then burned the place down with “Is That Clear?” and I’m just going to say it – that song is fucking amazing. It’s music so good it makes you want to be bad, say bad words, and quite possibly do bad things.
Waterhouse normally performs in a full suit and tie, but for Thursday’s show he was stripped down to a button-down and khakis. Afterward, he wandered through the crowd in a white undershirt -- like the ones your grandpa wears, only cleaner -- and he and the band talked to everyone who stuck around. He seemed genuinely pleased to meet his fans, and almost a little shy, and I doubt he’ll have the luxury of an intimate venue next time he’s here. If you missed Waterhouse this go around, D.C., don't make that same mistake twice. With luck, we’ll be seeing this guy for a long time to come.