Have you ever worried for an artist in anticipation for an upcoming show? Not necessarily in terms of their health or well being (but if you do, that’s nice, or stressful), but rather, worried in terms of the general attendance of the show. One might suppose that if you are in fact taking the time to consider the question rather than skipping this preposterous leading query entirely, then you likely answered “Yes” (Or sure. Or I guess. Or…. you get the picture).
It doesn’t necessarily matter what or why you worried on their behalf (obviously, because they didn’t ask you to), so if you did respond with “yes” - or just skipped the first paragraph (hello you sneaky folks) - then it may or may not have been a worry of whether or not enough tickets sell to garner a return to town from artist-X. Or maybe you don’t, because you’re not some sort of neurotic goof.
Anyway, what we’re slowly but surely inching towards as we claw our way out of this lede is that sometimes I worry about great artists coming to town a little too early in their ascent, in turn falling victim to the beast that is the paralysis of decision in the fifteen-shows-ever-night nature of Nashville as of late.
Realistically, I’ve just used the lede to project my own personal neuroses of whether or not many people would show up to Curtis Harding’s Mercy Lounge show. Not for a lack of faith in Harding (far from it, actually – his 2017 release Face Your Fear was one of my 10 best albums of the year), but rather, a lack of faith in Nashville when it comes to any artist that plays around with the conception of R&B and soul music. Luckily, such fears were ultimately frivolous, as Harding’s superb potpourri of soul, rock, and R&B brought a nearly sold out crowd to Mercy Lounge.
There’s something about Harding’s demeanor that kept making me think of the Soderbergh era Ocean’s movies. If I had to place precisely what it was that was, I’d say it was Harding’s sense of style - a bright red cardigan over a casual black t-shirt and suit pants - which was roughly the one aspect of the Ocean’s movies that stood the test of time.
So in other words, what I’m saying is that Curtis Harding - both as a performer and as a front person - is a timeless talent in an age of artist(s) du jour. But that’s pretty vague when it comes to an actual show recap. So where do we go from here? The music, obviously.
Harding’s fronting abilities were far superior to most others within his realm of various forms of American music, but that was expected. Harding took command the entire show, while simultaneously being of service to the audience. It’s always a relief when an artist as cool as Harding manages to supplant the typical expectation of elevated aloofness, and instead displays a sharp wit and self-deprecating approach. He’d joke about his guitarist getting so drunk he relieved himself on his own guitar, or the trials of kicking out a non existent backing singer. Ultimately, it left the audience in momentary confusion, as many might not have expected such razor edge to Harding’s humor.
While Harding’s clever quips might have been unexpected from an audience vantage point, what really took me by surprise was how tight his backing band was. Atlanta bands are always interesting to me, because (in keeping with the Ocean’s references) they almost always wind up being a murderer’s row of players, and Curtis Harding’s backing band was exactly that. It can (presumably) be tough to not over-indulge within a musical arena that moves dabbles in soul, R&B, and rock, but Harding’s crew kept themselves so pocket, you’d think there would be some change and chap-stick up on the stage.
As we disregard that last cringe-worthy idiom, let’s take one last moment to appreciate the moment that Harding and Face Your Fear are having. Curtis Harding is far from a “new” act - he’s a contemporary of CeeLo Green, Lauryn Hill, and Outkast - but this period of increased amplitude for Harding is exciting. It’s a recognition of over a decade’s worth of trudging forward, and seeing things through until the end. Harding has a sharp edge to him, and when he jokingly inquires, “Y’all talking shit? Y’all not ready to quit?” toward the audience, he could very well also be talking to himself. Here’s to Harding not being ready to quit any time soon.