For several minutes before Kevin Garrett took the stage at The Foundry last Tuesday night, the audience shuffled closer to the stage, holding their breath in anticipation. After brief applause as he took the stage, you could hear a pin drop as he launched into “Warn,” the opening song of his new album Hoax, which was conceived several years ago, and finally released at the end of March.
After showcases in London, a trip to Berlin, and a rehearsal in New York City, the Grammy-nominated Pittsburgh native launched his national tour from his home state. When he opened for Mumford & Sons at BB&T Pavilion two years ago, and apologized for being from Pittsburgh, he was booed by 20,000 people. Interviewing him after the show he good-naturedly said, “It was fun in a good way. That’s the best feeling to get booed, because of sports rivalries.” This night is different, though. He’s welcomed with open arms and granted honorary status as a Philadelphian by a small crowd of dedicated fans.
At first, Garrett seems lost in his own mind, as if no one else was there, not even his band. It was easy to imagine that this is the same way he plays alone in his bedroom. The atmosphere was thick with a trepidatious intimacy, a slight tension in reaction to the vulnerability of someone seemingly crooning diary entries over a thumping heartbeat. I asked him about this, and he said “I hadn’t been on the road in a long time, so I was anxious to get this first one under my belt. To be honest, the few showcases and shows I’ve been doing, I’ve been like fighting through some emotions on some songs, so I kind of tried really hard to tune everything out tonight.”
It’s this self-conscious, confessional delivery that has endeared him to fans over the past few years, while touring with James Vincent McMorrow, and collaborating with James Blake on “Prey You Catch Me” from Beyoncé’s seminal Lemonade.
After a few songs, he stepped from behind the keyboard, and took the center stage mic as if ready to preach a sermon. The audience responded in kind, gazing up at him and mouthing along lyrics, performing sacred rites of worship. As he loosened up, he began to elaborate on his songs, adding R&B vocal flourishes that made his recordings come alive. He played slightly different versions of songs from his 2017 EP, False Hope, (which has millions of plays on Spotify) including a jazzier version of “Little Bit of You” that almost jammed. On “Stranglehold” he seemed to break down the bridge and build it back up in a wave of sound that crashed over the crowd.
Slowly, he warmed up, getting more comfortable with the room, and exchanging banter with the vibe of a coffee shop open mic. He asked about memes, admitted to watching This Is Us, and said that when he played The Late Show, Colbert was “like an uncle he never had, a nice dude”. Thanking everyone for being there, he broke out a guitar to play “Faith You Might”.
In his most earnest moments, his voice rang out like a bell with frank clarity. “I would rather be honest with my feelings than try and put things on,” Garrett told me after the show. “There’s sometimes where you got to put on a face, and really sell it. I think with this tour I’m trying to be as honest as I’ve ever been.” As he wrapped up his set, he led the crowd in a singalong of “Love You Less” that resounded in a beautiful chorus of genuinely shared sentiment.
For the encore, Keven Garrett performed a stripped down, solo cover of “You Send Me” with a very different interpretation than Sam Cooke. While Cooke’s version assumes a mutual love and joyously skips along, Garrett seemed to interpret the love as unrequited, turning the song into a lament. That’s the tricky duality of love. It’s power to sometimes, almost simultaneously, be rapturous and wretched. Finally, he closed with “Coloring”, the breakout hit from his 2015 EP, Mellow Drama. As with the open, it was so quiet, I heard someone on the other side of the room say “wow” to themselves after a particularly acrobatic vocal run.
Like love, there’s a duality to Kevin Garrett’s music. It’s both intensely personal, and somehow universal in its sadness. That’s what makes it even more moving when experienced live. At the end of our interview, I ask him if he’s a sad person, and he easily admits he is. I follow up, and ask him how he feels about sharing his emotions with fans, who also have intense feelings about this music. “I think towards the front row tonight I saw a couple people, when I got to certain songs, get sad. That’s not mission accomplished, but it’s like, let’s do this. Let’s feel, together. Because, I think we bottle it up too much. As hard as it is, it’s helpful and healthy to just get through it, let it go, and try and get through the next song in one piece.” Maybe everyone in attendance was nursing some private heartbreak, but sadness together is somehow less sad.
Kevin Garrett’s music has been described as “odd soul.” In a time where people report feeling lonely more than ever before, perhaps some “odd soul” that recognizes basic, human, shared struggles like love and self-doubt is exactly what we need.
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