Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Good Life

It pays to fall for a soul man early in his career.

From the very first time I'd heard Devon Gilfillian, I was in love with this voice and musicianship. The song "High" was as close to 21st century R&B perfection as I've yet to hear and, believe me, that's a sound I go looking for. But too often, I'm disappointed by overly graphic lyrics that spell out what I'd prefer to hear suggested subtly.

I'm looking at you, Miguel. Love your songs, but not the trashy lyrics.

Then I heard Devon's second single, "Get Out and Get It" and it was full of '70s musical references, showing that young Devon had been well-schooled in the music of my youth. Turns out his Dad is a musician who'd made sure his son listened to lots of Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire and, perhaps most interestingly, Jimi Hendrix.

So when I saw that Devon was playing the Southern in Charlottesville, I bought tickets without even caring if I had plans that night. Nothing could top hearing that man live in that tiny room. Mac didn't hesitate to jump on board, and a plan was hatched.

After the massive thunderstorm that blew threw today, darkening the sky so that I had to turn on lights to work at 3:00 in the afternoon, the drive to the show was dry and uneventful (if you don't count Mac's penchant for speeding). After she grabbed a slice at Christian's Pizza, we made it to the Southern minutes before opener Carl Anderson took the stage, his leather guitar strap embossed with his name: CARL.

I'd seen Carl before when he opened for Sons of Bill at Capital Alehouse and like that time, his low-key sad songs reminded me of Richmond's own Jonathan Vassar, the Americana master of morose melodies and haunting songwriting. After Carl sang his first song, he took off his glasses, flung them to the stage's carpeted floor and asked of the crowd, "How the hell are you?"

For a Wednesday night crowd - most of which was wearing flip-flops and definitely not a Richmond-looking  crowd - which spanned all ages and genders, we were loud and excited to be there listening to his heartfelt Americana, accompanied only by acoustic guitar.

Don't come 'round with the devil on your breath.

He talked abut how happy he was to be playing some dates with Devon since his last tour had been, "just me in the Corolla, getting a little stoned and spending too much time in my head." Heads nodded in understanding.

"I don't know why I took my glasses off," Carl later lamented. "I can't see my set list now. I'm always making things hard on myself." Between his self-deprecation, humor ("I'm going to slow things down here, but looking at my set list, it's amazing I'm still alive. I gotta write some happy songs") and singing songs in character, he was the epitome of a Nashville troubadour.

His song "Pills," sung with a sickeningly sweet fake smile, was not, however, a happy song. And no surprise, he closed with a sad song, but we would have expected nothing less.

You could feel the excitement building during the break.

The stage was already set for Devon's band, three extremely talented (white) Nashville musicians with seriously long hair, jaw-droppingly good back-up singer voices (their harmonies with Devon were nothing short of swoon-worthy) and lots of energy, the better to support Devon's soulful voice, on display from the very first notes.

From the slow jam sound accompanied by Hendrix-like guitar parts (he switched between three different guitars) of "Full Disclosure" to the booty-shaking sound of "Dangerous," Devon had the crowd in the palm of his handsome hand from start to finish. For a musician who's only put out an EP (his full-length album is due to drop soonish), the man oozed confidence.

At one point, Mac and I looked at each other amazed that we were lucky enough to be seeing him in this tiny venue before he blows up, which he inevitably will (Capitol Records wouldn't have signed him so blindingly fast otherwise).

Things got serious when he shared a story of he and his band driving somewhere when a car hit them head-on. The experience had understandably affected him greatly and, like any good songwriter, it had shifted his attitude about life ("You gotta think about what's important in life") and he'd written a song about it called "Stranger."

"Whether someone drives into you at 80 mph or you meet someone and fall in love with them, I'm telling you that one person can completely change your life." Don't I know it. The haunting song was accompanied only by the keys.

Besides the immense talent we were witnessing, it was his (and his bandmates') genuine pleasure in performing that truly made the show. They were clearly having as much fun as we were, except they also got to show off their talent.

That's what's known as a win/win.

Telling the crowd that the band had just completed their first full-length record, Devon asked to play some of the new songs for us before he introduced "The Good Life," as a song about embracing diversity of all kinds.

I just want everyone to love one another
Do you hear what I'm sayin', sisters and brothers?

Yet another great thing about the music was that it encompassed not only plenty of slow jams but just as much hard rockin' thank to Devon's years studying Hendrix (and maybe Buddy Guy?) to shape his guitar stylings. It was never more apparent than during "Troublemaker" when he and the bass player leaned back to back to execute screaming solos together.

Everyone went crazy for his new single, "Get Out and Get It" with its Afro-beat influences. Seems he toured South Africa last year and fell hard for the Afro-beat sound.

Stop asking who's gonna light the fire
Stop asking who's gonna take you higher

I swear, between the socially conscious message and solid funk groove, it could have been the '70s all over again. Mac and I just kept grinning at each other, thrilled to witness it all. At one point, she noted, "He reminds me of Sam Cooke," referring to his heart-melting voice. Uh huh.

After introducing his bandmates, complete with mini bios and effusive compliments, the band went back to playing and Devon took his guitar-playing into the crowd, crouching low as he moved, until he was three feet in front of us. To top that, he then laid down on his back while continuing to play, smiling all the while like he was having the time of his life.

I know we were.

As if we couldn't be any more enamored of this man, when he mentioned that he'd be at the merch table after the show, he promised that he had t-shirts with his cat's picture on them. I'm not even a cat person and I found that charming.

After an hour and a half whipping the crowd into a frenzy, Devon said goodnight before returning, grinning with happiness, for the encore we demanded loudly. More, we wanted so much more.

"Think of the slow dancing days back in the '90s," he instructed. "Then find someone you want to squeeze and let's take it back!" He called his band back onstage to harmonize with him and using only a keyboard accompaniment, began something very '90s sounding that got plenty of people in the room singing along.

All my life, I prayed for someone like you
And I hope that you do love me, too
And I hope you feel the same way, too

Mac's guesses were Boyz 2 Men or New Kids on the Block and I admit I hadn't a clue. Actually, I couldn't have cared less, since anytime this man was singing, I was all ears, whether I recognized it or not. My only (teeny, tiny) regret was that he didn't sing "High," the song that introduced me to him.

Driving home through patches of light fog, I had en epiphany. The good news was we'd just seen a rising star in a room the size of my apartment. The bad news is we know with absolute certainty we'll never get to see him in such a small venue again. And you know what they say: you gotta take the good with the bad.

Do you hear what I'm sayin', sisters and brothers?

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