Live Review: Paul Thorn @ The Birchmere — 8/12/21

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Paul Thorn performs live. (Photo courtesy the artist)

When Paul Thorn plays The Birchmere, it’s always a party and a celebration.

Even in these times, when he couldn’t, as per his usual practice, wade into the crowd at the end of show to shake hands and give hugs, it’s still an evening of joy and uplift. The Renaissance man from Tupelo, Mississippi — Paul is a former pro middleweight fighter who once fought world champ Roberto Duran, and, in addition to his music, he’s a visual artist — is all heart, except where’s he also pure rock and grooving soul.

On Aug. 12, the evening started off with an excellent opening set by the Jamie McLean Band, a loud and proud power trio. Thorn really knows how to pick his opening acts. Last time I saw him, he had the delightful, quirky folksinger Steve Poltz, who cowrote Jewel’s megahit “You Were Meant For Me.” The Jamie McLean Band is a world apart musically, a fusion of hard rocking and New Orleans, but, when it comes to attitude and spirit, both of these high energy acts were a perfect fit. I strongly recommend checking out their stuff and catching their show at The Hamilton Live on Nov. 2 (opening Sonny Landreth).

Paul made a perfect choice to open his set with “What the Hell is Going On?”; I can’t think of another tune from his catalogue that would’ve been more appropriate. His songs are known for being expressing incisive observations in plain, direct language, capturing a powerful dose of truth. Even the titles are pretty catchy, like “Everybody Looks Good at the Starting Line.” “I Don’t Like Half the Folks I Love” really gets at the heart of the conflicted relationship that almost everyone has with their family.

The storytelling between and about the songs is always a highlight of Paul’s show. Explaining “Sao Paolo,” he spoke of his love for James Brown, and how he stumbled on an interview on YouTube with the Godfather of Soul. Brown had just gotten out of jail after being arrested for domestic violence, and he’s about to head to Brazil on tour. The interview asks Brown how I’m doing, and he replies, “I look good, I feel good, I smell good, it’s all good!” Paul’s song riffs on this interview, incorporating Brown’s words.

Paul is unabashedly Southern (albeit in a very modern), and God and family are major themes of his work. His set Thursday night included one of the tracks from his 2019 gospel album, Don’t Let the Devil Ride. Just this month, he put out his first original record in seven years, Never Too Late Too Call. The title track is about his sister, who passed away from breast cancer in 2018. She was a night owl, and Paul would often call her at all hours of the night when he needed someone to talk to after shows. He would apologize for calling so late, and she would always reply, “It’s never too late to call.”

Stream Never Too Late to Call by Paul Thorn on Spotify:

Before playing the next song, Paul addressed a man sitting the near the stage, asking him if he’d had any important mentors in life; the man replied that his father had fit that role. In his own life, Paul had two contrasting influences: His father, a Pentecostal preacher, and his uncle, who was a pimp. He sings about how each helped make him the man he is in “Pimps & Preachers.”

I mentioned Paul’s visual art, and that came up when he introduced “Mess Around, Get a Buzz.” The song inspired a drawing, which has now been made into a jigsaw puzzle, which he proudly showed to the audience.

Another song from the new album, “Holy Hottie Toddy,” may best encapsulate the singer-songwriter’s philosophy. Oxford, the home of Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi), is about an hour from Paul’s home in Tupelo. When he was visiting the campus, he heard folks greeting each other, “Hey Hottie Toddy,” referring to the cocktail. The phrase stuck with him, and it anchors the chorus of the song: “Holy hottie toddy / Good God Almighty / Love everybody.”

Throughout the set, Paul was accompanied by his excellent band, which consists of guitar, bass, keys, and drums. His guitarist, he shared, played with Leon Russell, and looks every bit the part: long hair, glasses. He ended the set with the uplifting “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” then came back out alone for his encore to play “Breaking Up for Good Again,” a song about the travails of a long marriage.

Paul’s brand of uplifting roots rock and Americana is always more than welcome, but maybe now even more than ever. It’s joyful, life-affirming stuff, which we can all use right now.

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