I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that at least 90-percent of Saturday’s Grey Eagle crowd left the venue in love with Sean Hayes. And probably 75-percent of those people went to the show with a preexisting crush. There’s no shame in it: Hayes (who lives in San Francisco now, but grew up in North Carolina) is an intoxicating blend of ease, effortless cool and magnetism.
Hayes writes songs that, even to the uninitiated, sound like hits. He’s been compared to Bill Withers for his rhythmic sense and his soulfulness. He recalls a younger J.J. Cale for his paired-down songs, his deep grooves and his ability to say a lot with a little (that, and he kind of looks like Cale, circa the ‘70s). And even if you think you’re not familiar with Hayes, you probably know his song, “Powerful Stuff,” which got a lot of mileage in a Subaru commercial.
Early in the set, Hayes played the dead-sexy “Bam Bam” from last year’s Before We Turn to Dust. It’s built swagger and back beat, Hayes’ vocal both reedy and husky, the whole song yo-yoing between loose and tight. But for all the dirty-dancing potential, Hayes’ songs also tap into the spiritual. There’s a meditative quality to them; a sort of spiraling in of life experience and awareness, accessing pure love through the doorway of infatuation.
“Turn Around Turn Me On” is a great example of that, with its reggae pulse and and simple-but-deep lyrics. On that song, Hayes let his voice quaver at the end of the lines, a kind of ragged edge that he had honed into something artful.
New, as-yet-unrecorded song “Found My Love” is also ruminative, following the singer-songwriter’s trajectory from N.C. to California. He talked about playing one of his first songs, “Mary Magdalene” at the Black Mountain Folk Festival (the precursor to LEAF) when he was about 19 — and then performed the song on The Grey Eagle stage. It made for an interesting comparison between Hayes’ early work and his most current. There’s a definite continuity over the 20-plus years of back catalog, but also a clear refining of influences and distilling of style.
On a “A Thousand Tiny Pieces,” from the same album as “Mary Magdelene,” drummer Eric Kuhn (also from N.C., but now based in Oakland, Calif), came out from behind the kit to play guitar. It changed the feel of the show from soul to folk. They started “Flowering Spade” the same way, but even without drums the song had a percussive, jangly beat. And then, half-way through, Kuhn jumped back on the drum set and shape-shifted the mood of the evening yet again.
Keyboardist Michael Coleman rounded out the band, aptly filling in the sound that Hayes often creates with a larger lineup. Coleman was also fun to watch because he looked like he have having The. Best. Time. Ever. Not that there weren’t plenty of reasons to be having a blast.
The blue-eyed soul of “When We Fall In” had the couples dancing the kind of dances that happen late at night when the lights are low and the bottles are empty. But that song. My god. It’s got the emotional gut-punch of “Try a Little Tenderness,” paired with the startling poetry of lines like “She is in every little bird / Forever rising forever dying,” which Hayes skips like stones across the drop of drum and bass notes.
There was that, and there was “Alabama Chicken,” all bluesy and funky, and road-house-y. It’s a song for another kind of empty-bottle late-night. “Voodoo, booday,” the musician sings over the thick, dark melody. That song contains within the absolute best use of old-time chestnut “Cluck Old Hen,” and the line “Old James Brown came to get down.” I mean. Sean Hayes married Cluck Old Hen and James Brown in a single song.
And that’s just one of like a thousand reasons why 90-percent of the crowd at that show probably still gets just a little bit flustered at the mention of Sean Hayes’ name.