While it might be considered a bit pretentious for an artist to cover Radiohead, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Buckley, John Legend, George Gershwin, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell all in one night, Jamie Cullum’s performance at the 9:30 Club on Saturday night surely proved otherwise. In fact, Cullum’s piano-driven renditions of “High and Dry,” “Wind Cries Mary” and “Frontin'” were so uniquely and deftly performed that they can only be described as, well, exquisite.
Cullum opened his two-hour set with “Photograph,” a self-written track from his latest release, “Catching Tales.” The song is a nostalgic piece about childhood that begins with Cullum singing over a simple piano hook. The song, however, evolves quickly into a showcase of Cullum’s booming vocal talent as he sings, “When I look back on my ordinary, ordinary life/I see so much magic, though I missed it at the time.” Coupled with a jazzy piano solo at the end, “Photograph” proved to be the perfect opener for a fantastic show.
What made Cullum’s performance so memorable was his energetic stage presence and his ability to do so much with a static instrument like the piano. Unlike so many other piano ballad rockers such as Coldplay and Keane, Cullum actually reaches an artistic level above and beyond the scope of simple chord structures.
For instance, Cullum’s version of Timberlake’s “SexyBack” was highlighted by a type of beat-boxing where the top edge of the piano was used as a percussive instrument. Though I don’t care for Timberlake’s version (any song that has to inform the listener when he or she is being “taken to the chorus” is seriously lacking in songwriting originality), Cullum managed to turn an otherwise forgettable hip-hop number into a remarkable piece of musical imagination.
At another point in the night, Cullum decided to ditch the keys altogether and pluck the actual strings inside his grand piano. By standing on top of his bench and leaning over, he produced a softer sound similar to that of a harp rather than the concise resonance of the piano.
During yet another tune, the 27-year-old English pianist actually ventured into the crowd with trumpeter Rory Simmons, who performed a lengthy solo while Cullum danced to the side.
The highlight of night had to be Cullum’s cover of Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” which further verified the singer/songwriter’s virtuosity on the piano. “Lover” was clearly Cullum’s most emotional song of the night, allowing him to sing, “So I’ll wait for you and I’ll burn/Will I ever see your sweet return?/Oh, will I ever learn?/Oh lover, you should’ve come over.” A hush came over the crowd as Cullum played the first several subtle notes of the song, and a deafening applause deservingly reverberated through the venue as he struck the final chord.
After praising the audience and leaving the stage with his band, Cullum came back out for a two-song encore and finished his set with “Twentysomething,” the title track from his 2004 LP. The lyrics were especially pertinent to the younger crowd as Cullum belted out, “I don’t want to get up, just let me lie in/Leave me alone, I’m a twenty something.”
As Cullum left the stage for the last time, he noted that this was his final show in the District until next fall. He’ll spend the vast majority of 2007 writing songs for his next album and collaborating with various artists. Cullum’s performance Saturday night was quite a way to wrap up back-to-back nights at the 9:30 Club, and hopefully, he’ll return in 2007 with a new list of songs to go along with an already impressive catalog of music.