Allen Stone’s band warmed up the crowd with a variation on James Brown’s “Sex Machine” prior to his taking stage at the 9:30 Club Thursday night. If you didn’t know what the soul-singing wunderkind from Washington state looked like before he emerged, you might have thought they brought out the wrong guy. In his wide-brimmed hat, Western-style knit parka, and large glasses he looked less like a singer and more like a nerdy cowboy about to rob a stagecoach before heading to Old Mexico.
But then he started singing (the appropriate-for-DC “What I’ve Seen,” in which he talks about how “politicians manipulate minds”) and any discussion of his appearance went out the window. Stone’s voice is darn near perfect for the kind of uplifting party/soul music he performs. At its best, it’s a voice that’s often compared to Stevie Wonder’s - while that’s not as evident on his records, it becomes very clear live, especially on songs like “Celebrate Tonight” and “Sleep,” arguably his most popular song.
At only 25, Stone is already a master showman and worked the crowd magnificently. He constantly bounced all over the stage, repeatedly engaged with the capacity crowd and urged them to dance, and said “Washington, DC” more times in one night than a city councilman says it in a year. At one point Stone divided the room in half for a “dance-off,” noting that people had no excuse for not dancing since he himself had been dancing all night and was from “one of the most rhythmically challenged areas of the United States.” His relentless enthusiasm for performing is infectious.
Another frequent comparison Stone receives - one that likely doesn’t sit as well - is to Jason Mraz, and unfortunately that comparison was sometimes apt on Thursday as well. Stone played two solo acoustic songs, “Killing Time and “Bed I Made,” and though the crowd was equally Mrazmerized by these slow numbers, the juxtaposition of these songs with the more groove-laded jams performed with the help of his extraordinary band was noticeable.
But this is a small complaint, as for the majority of his 90 minute set Stone and Co. were firing on all cylinders. Songs like “Nothing to Prove” – to which the group added a teaser of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – and the funk-tinged “Running Game” illustrated the fantastic skill of Stone and his band. They were equally jumpy on “Contact High,” the first single of Stone’s 2011 self-titled album, and a less-reggae/more-soulful version of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” (which may have garnered the biggest cheers of the night).
The enthusiasm of Stone’s fans was no doubt buoyed by opening act Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds. The Brooklyn-based nine-piece rhythm and blues juggernaut ripped through eight spectacular songs that ranged from roadhouse blues to soul to funk. Like Allen Stone, Sister Sparrow (Arleigh Kincheloe) also has an appearance that disguises the voice within, but for VERY different reasons. Kincheloe is barely five feet tall, but on songs like “No Rest” and “Eddy” the stellar been-broken-by-the-blues voice that emanates from her knows no limits. A new song, a slow blues jam called “Fight,” indicates that Kincheloe’s voice will be front and center on future Dirty Birds material as well.
The two performers presented an interesting contrast in styles; Allen Stone’s music, while certainly soulful, takes on a clean, 70s pop vibe at times (despite his assertion to the New York Times that he’s “sick and tired of soul music looking so crisp and clean and proper.”) As one fan remarked, there is “no nasty” in Stone’s music. Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds’ songs, on the other hand, could easily have been released on Stax Records in the mid-60s. There’s a certain danger (“nastiness,” if you will) in their R&B. To paraphrase Mr. Burns, Allen Stone was the sobering yin to Sister Sparrow’s raging yang. The two halves made for a spectacular whole on Thursday night.