It Was Great Fun

7 Mar

All you really need to know about Jamie Cullum is right there in the lyrics of the song “Mixtape,” which appears on his new album The Pursuit.

The song — which name-checks Nine Inch Nails, Louis Armstrong, Morrissey, John Coltrane, Cinematic Orchestra, De La Soul, Thelonious Monk, the Shangri-La’s, and more — indicates the wide range of musical influences that are running ’round Cullum’s head, and which result in a wide-ranging live show, such as the one he put on Saturday night at the House of Blues in Boston.

(And if the list of influential artists doesn’t give away what Cullum’s live shows are like, then the image of an exploding piano on his album cover surely does.)

Backed by a strong four-piece band, Cullum took the stage and immediately launched into his stripped-down cover of Rhianna’s “Don’t Stop the Music.”

It was followed by “I’m All Over It” and “Get Your Way,” the latter of which is on Cullum’s second U.S. release, Catching Tales.

The rest of the set list (which Cullum indicated he changes each night) featured plenty of tracks from The Pursuit (in total, he played seven of them), most of which sounded great — in particular, the Cole Porter song “Just One of Those Things,” “If I Ruled the World” (a Tony Bennett standard), “Wheels,” and the aforementioned “Mixtape.”

“Photograph,” also from Catching Tales, was another highlight.

Some of the best moments of the concert were the quieter ones, such as when Cullum did a beautiful solo piano version of “Gran Torino” (the theme song for Clint Eastwood’s movie), and when he was accompanied only by a cello for “I Get a Kick Out of You.” Both put the spotlight on Cullum’s strong singing voice and, in the case of the former, his piano-playing skills.

Also notable, though, was a fantastic, much more lively “These Are the Days,” which started out as a cover of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” included some lines of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” and finished with Cullum taking the audience to church, repeating the refrain “I feel fine” over and over.

Not surprisingly, while Cullum came on stage wearing a jacket, long sleeves, and a tie, by the second song he had already shed the jacket and rolled up his sleeves. He made reference to the Berklee students in the audience, saying they’ll probably criticize him for playing some false notes, but that he should be okay if he sweats a lot because then no one will notice.

Sure enough, the guy worked hard for his applause and got plenty of it. Twice he climbed atop his piano and jumped off, he called for audience participation on a couple songs (including “London Skies,” which he played solo on acoustic guitar), and two hours after he started, Cullum showed no signs of wanting to leave, throwing in an extra tune (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me”) after his band had left the stage after the encore. An appropriate song choice, for sure.

Saturday’s concert continued Cullum’s habit of exploding his reputation as simply a jazz singer. The mix of songs played also included a great version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Wind Cries Mary” and an acoustic “Cry Me a River” that mashed together the jazz standard with the bass line from Justin Timberlake’s song.

And even though “Music Is Through” was a bit much (the band really needs to hold back on its playing; they totally drowned out Cullum), its house sound fit right in at a club venue like House of Blues — which by the way, was a more appropriate place for him to play than the Boston Opera House, where he played the last time he was in town.

(Another similar misstep was having the band get too loud at the end on an otherwise lovely “All at Sea.”)

The problem with a guy like Jamie Cullum getting more successful and putting out more albums is that the more material he has to choose from, the less he’s going to play of his older stuff.

I missed hearing “What a Difference a Day Made,” “High and Dry,” and the title track off Twentysomething, though I’m sure the latter song came off the set list because Cullum is now 30.

And I was bummed (and surprised) that he didn’t sing “You and Me Are Gone,” “Love Ain’t Gonna Let You Down,” or his cover of “Not While I’m Around,” all from The Pursuit (which I love, by the way).

But what Cullum did sing was great. He was in fine voice, he displayed expert musicianship, and his enthusiasm was infectious. It was another top-notch show from one of my favorite performers.

Incidentally, Irish rockabilly singer Imelda May opened the show with a 45-minute set that included “How High the Moon,” the song she performed at the Grammys with Jeff Beck. I didn’t know the other songs she played, but her set was impressive enough that I’m gonna have to go pick up her album, Love Tattoo.

If you’ve got tickets to a future Cullum show where she’s the opener, don’t be late.

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