Live Review: Curtis Harding @ Black Cat — 5/2/22

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Curtis Harding leads his band in a performance at Black Cat on May 2, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)

A unique path with a full spectrum of influences can lead to refreshing, innovative artistic ideas, especially in music.

By the time he released his first album in 2014, Curtis Harding had gained a wide perspective both with his ears and his eyes thanks to an uncommon upbringing and an early run of success as a member of various outfits, including working alongside some of the country’s most noteworthy rap and hip-hop artists.

But at a May 2 stop at Black Cat, Harding used a remarkably sophisticated and grooving performance to prove that his decision to embark on a solo career was indeed a wise one and that he holds the promise of a rewarding future.

Alluring from the moment he strolled onto the stage, Harding was disguised in a leopard-print jacket and a blue-green corduroy trucker hat. If he was smirking, it was hidden way behind white thick-brimmed Gucci sunglasses that covered his eyes and some of his face.

Curtis stepped to the mic and, equipped with no instrument other than his immortal tone, he began to twist and turn and tilted his head back as his band began the smooth, contemplative opening progression of “Hopeful,” a leading track from his 2021 ANTI Records studio release, If Words Were Flowers. Together, the group lifted up the resounding gospel refrain of this harmonious, ascending march.

Stream Curtis Harding’s 2021 ANTI Records studio release, If Words Were Flowers, via Spotify:

Comprised of low-key, sharpened and workmanlike musicians, the band featured guitarist Tyler Morris, bassist Aaron Stern, drummer Michael Villiers, and Jeremy Gill on saxophone and keys/synths. Together, they helped Harding propel his sound with confidence and in a modern, classy presentation of a marvelous slice of songs pulled from just three albums.

Shifting into “The Drive” from his premiere album Soul Power, Harding calmly picked up his Fender Jaguar and used this early recording to show what’s been heralded as his unique blend of soul and various rock sounds, and its cycling tempo provided a runway for his dynamic vocals — he artfully decorated his gorgeous — and these days hard to find — R&B voice with textures of Southern rock, grunge, funk, rap, and more.

The breadth of sound and Harding’s ability to weave it all together through the songs he invents is a testament to his journey in life. He was born in Michigan but moved all over the south, with stops in Alabama, Texas, California and Georgia, where he spent his high school years.

His mother, nearly 30 years younger than his father, sang gospel and Curtis was close with her, even supporting her as a back-up singer as a young teen. His parents raised their six children as Mennonites and they’d stayed with different families as part of a somewhat nomadic religious existence, floating from and to various communities before settling in Atlanta.

“WE LOVE YOU, CURTIS!” shouted one onlooker at Black Cat.

“We love you back,” he smiled, surely making someone’s evening.

And by the time he got into his third song, it was clear that Harding is indeed continuing the musical voyage he started at his mother’s side as a young boy. “Face Your Fear,” the title track to his acclaimed second studio album, cast an illusory cloud into the already-dark venue space. Curtis and his squad rode this pensive advance to a reconciliation, an enlivening of sorts, as Harding’s voice suspended with a reassurance and maturity.

Watch a music video crafted from a live performance of Curtis Harding’s “I Won’t Let You Down” via his official YouTube channel:

During the recent DC appearance, in Curtis’ voice could be heard a determination to use his music as a vehicle to transmit a powerful message of love and hope, and those passionate themes have formed a congruence between his studio offerings.

“We feel good,” he told the audience. “Moving and shaking. That’s part of the game. Get out on the road and spread the positive message to the people. Know what I’m saying?”

Gripping a simple tambourine for the delivery of “Need My Baby,” Harding added jingle and character to an already brightly garnished track that drifted and floated as Harding turned the direction of his pitch. The audience had packed in around the stage, and by the time this song closed out, even the clumsiest folks in the house were in sync with his unbothered, voguish movement.

“Dream Girl,” a mysterious and tempting jam from Face Your Fear, featured rich, funky bass lines, not the first of the night from Stern who was as straight-faced as his name might suggest. One of Harding’s most popular cuts from his latest album, “Can’t Hide It” manifested in live form as a modern alternative soul classic, one perfectly balanced by timely, complementary exclamations from Morris’ Fender — with hints of psych or surf rock painting this track as that much more admirably complex and divulging.

Stream Curtis Harding’s 2017 ANTI Records studio release, Face Your Fear, via Spotify:

“On and On,” a cinematic, kaleidoscopic achievement at Black Cat, was heightened by Gill’s transmission of a glorious, ambitious saxophone solo from the back corner, where all night he concocted layers of sound with the brass or with the keys to help give the songs the same lavishness captured on their recorded versions.

Showing his own range even further from clear view, Villiers had to venture into most of it as the songs shifted just slightly, bending the idea of genre. Tracks like “The One” heard Michael emulating world beats to start the song, and later he’d move at what sounded and felt like jazz speed to dictate the cadence and mood of “Freedom.”

“REAL MUSIC BY REAL MUSICIANS!” bellowed one character in the crowd, a head-turning awakening.

“We appreciate that,” Harding responded in a much calmer tone. By then, he’d long shed the jacket and he’d worked up a sweat that was shining on his neck and his brow.

“We love and appreciate you coming out. There’s a lotta places you could’ve been, but you’re right here. It’s a beautiful thing to celebrate with like-minded people.”

Harding, who has seen all walks of life and even lived for a spell in Canada, pointed out that live music in Washington DC in most cases represents a gathering of people of different nationalities enjoying a special experience together.

“We need to celebrate that,” said Harding, whose music has been featured in different TV series. In recent years, Curtis himself even made his way into acting, notably playing the role of an ill-famed blues guitarist in the Sundance TV drama Hap and Leonard.

Down the backstretch, Harding’s set was highlighted by a wildly fanciful take on “Castaway,” with downright nasty bass, alarming and eye-popping guitar interjections and a recurrent organ serving as a stylish fabric underneath it all. And here, again, Curtis showed another degree of his voice with the song’s howling and longing chorus.

“I Don’t Want to Let You Down,” his most streamed piece from If Words Were Flowers, and a forthright, sonically brisk take on “Need Your Love,” his most popular single to date judging by the numbers, helped round out a convincing collection of songs.

And that setlist would grow, as Curtis would bring his squad back up for not one but another five songs, beginning with a far-out, utopian twist on “With You” from the new record and followed by a dazzling version of “Next Time,” one of his defining compositions from Soul Power.

The increasingly engaged audience was rewarded with an invigorating and provocative take on his hit “Heaven’s On The Other Side,” then a bursting, celebratory “Keep On Shining,” before the group closed out with Harding’s voluminous soul number “As I Am” from Face Your Fear.

Impressing with his showmanship, his consistency and his infectiously positive attitude, Harding is as seasoned an industry veteran as might make their way to Black Cat any time soon. And he made the case with his local visit that he is unquestionably a one-of-a-kind talent with a creative vision and a charismatic swagger that should propel him further along his productive, thrilling path as a musician.

Setlist:

Hopeful
The Drive
Face Your Fear
Need My Baby
Dream Girl
Can’t Hide It
Till The End
On and On
The One
Freedom
Cast Away
I Won’t Let You Down
Explore
Wednesday Morning
Need Your Love

Encore
With You
Next Time
Heaven’s On The Other Side
Keep On Shining
As I Am

Here are images of Curtis Harding and his band along with the night’s opening act, Joshy Soul, performing at Black Cat in Washington DC on May 2, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.

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Joshy Soul

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