Written by Tim Lemon
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With a voice that could be described as a combination of Ray Lamontagne’s soft hoarseness and Van Morrison’s strained range sprinkled with James Bay’s scratch and a dash of Chester Bennington’s pained screams, Anderson East brought his heart and soul to Freeport’s Discovery Park on Saturday, 8/17. With the emphasis on soul if the aforementioned mixture of vocalists was not indicative of a genre, East and his six-piece band transported to the great north their brand of blue-eyed soul-infused R&B from its place of cultivation in their native Nashville, Tennessee. Having only been familiar with radio hits “Girlfriend” and “All on My Mind” off of 2018’s Encore, I didn't quite know what to expect before the show. Whereas the former maintained a pure, horn-based R&B rhythm, the latter incorporated strings and an abrasively pulsing synthesizer bass over a decidedly more hip-hop beat. However, my curiosity was piqued when Dispatch announced East as the opening act for their show at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia. Seeing that Moon Taxi was the opener for their Portland show at Thompson’s Point, I jumped at the chance to incrementally recreate the Wolf Trap lineup a month later with East’s Freeport tour date. And when the ticket price was exactly $0.00, how could I not?
Starting his set with the heartfelt slow jam “If You Keep Leaving Me”, East was quick to put his vocal precision on display over the subdued, yet emotive instrumentation. The two then escalated together in a bridge that was akin to Joe Cocker’s rendition of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” This microcosm of juxtaposing tempos and volumes proved to be the perfect sample of East’s entire performance. Oscillating from reserved and touching ballads like “Devil in Me” and “Without You” that were accentuated with lap steel guitar to horn-centric dance rockers like “Surrender” that could have fooled me for Blues Brothers covers, he seemed to have a perfect sense of when to dial back and, conversely, when to up the energy. Playing to a mostly seated crowd armed with L.L. Bean soccer chairs in the lawn of Discovery Park, gauging the audience in this way was no easy task. With the pure fervor of East’s voice coupled with the lively bounce of the trumpet and saxophone on the more uptempo songs, I was antsy for the rest of the crowd when I didn’t see much more movement than some nodding heads. Older crowds always seem to have a penchant for classic rock, though, so a number of those nodding heads had something to nod a bit more approvingly for when East and company broke out a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”, complete with a saxophone solo paying homage to Clarence Clemons.
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As though validated, the signature soulful R&B sound flourished on “Satisfy Me”, which seemed to be a unique blend of Hozier’s “Someone New” and Ray Lamontagne’s “You Are The Best Thing” with its descending horns in the choral refrain. “Girlfriend” also presented the bare-bones horn section in force with a catchy hook in the chorus that was subtly matched with organ keyboard slides in the verses. With these fills that were skilfully scattered throughout the set, in addition to more prolonged jams, Philip Towns solidified himself as the focal instrumentalist of the ensemble. Poignant when the vocals were soft and melancholic, the keys were also vibrant when called for and played an essential part within the overall soundscape. The entire band-keyboards, bass, lead guitar, drums, trumpet, and saxophone-was on point as was highlighted throughout the night, but Towns’ talents were consistently called upon to begin songs and were a surefire way to evoke massive applause following a solo. Showcasing influences unlike any other song in the set, “All on My Mind” underwent a slow tempo and instrumentation makeover as it featured jaunty, saloon-esque piano in the verses while the trumpet and sax took over for the strings that were present on the album version of the song. These were welcome changes that made the song mesh well with the rest of the set rather than potentially stick out and be interpreted as out of place.
I’ve often compared music in the live setting to a religious experience due to the power of the musical medium, fixed attention to the figure on stage, and shared purpose of the audience. Taking on a more literal sense, Anderson East’s musical journey is deeply rooted in religion. His grandfather a Baptist preacher, his father a church choir singer, and his mother a piano player, it stands to reason that East’s first exposure to music and performance came in the spiritual, communal setting of the church in the presence of loved ones. Contributing to this affinity for music, those roots reverberated throughout his set and coursed through his commanding stage presence during the set-ender “All I’ll Ever Need.” Anchored by effects-free piano, it was gospel music pure and true...that is, until it saw a New Orleans-style jazz infusion with a triumphant saxophone solo. Bringing the crowd to its feet due to the appreciation of musicianship and the formality of an ovation at the conclusion of the set, East kept them standing and finally got them dancing in full with the encore cover of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming.” Clearly establishing it as an influence on other songs in the set, it brought his music and the selection of songs in the performance full circle while sending everyone forth from Discovery Park with an energetic air of positivity. Meanwhile, my happiness was compounded by the continued discovery of new music via the live show experience. It may not always come easy, but thanks to this show (and Freeport’s public parking policy) this time it came free.
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