LOS ANGELES -- Midway through his show here Saturday night, Eagle-Eye Cherry stopped to make a special dedication.
It wasn't your average musical tribute.
But Cherry is not your average performer, as the crowd would soon find out. Rather, he is a soulful artist intent on getting people's attention, whatever the circumstances, however he can.
In this case, at least, it worked.
Dressed in solid black, the rising blues/rock/soul artist leaned toward his microphone and, tilting his head to the side, said, "I'd like to dedicate this next song to the president."
When his mention of America's troubled leader was greeted by a mixture of cheers and boos, Cherry clarified himself. "I feel really bad for the guy -- I didn't even know he smoked cigars," he cracked, referencing the scandalous affair between President Bill Clinton and then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Telling the crowd it would understand his dedication better if it listened to the lyrics, Cherry then launched into the country-tinged ballad called "Misfortune," off his inaugural release, Desireless.
With its lyrics of disillusionment and grief ("She's my misfortune ... I've lost my composure/ I've lost my cool/ Ah, sh--"), the song seemed as though Cherry had written it specifically with the beleaguered president in mind.
It was around the same time as the Clinton dedication that Cherry's headlining gig at the El Rey Theatre seemed to take a turn, as the typically reserved Los Angeles crowd warmed up to the performer and began embracing him as the heartfelt, talented artist he is. With the venue only about half-full, Cherry's expressions hinted at frustration at times, but they were fleeting as he determinedly tried to rile the crowd.
"He was really catering the crowd, trying to please, but they didn't given him the respect he deserved," concert-goer Paul Curran said. "A lot of people say, 'that's just L.A.,' but I felt bad for him. He won them over but he had to give it his all."
By the time the 27-year-old Cherry played his sing-along hit, "Save Tonight" (RealAudio excerpt), to close the first set, the crowd may not have been enraptured, but it was at least willing. With disco-balls giving the stage a funky look, the melodic, danceable, soul-rock tune carried a feel that was at once retro and yet utterly contemporary.
"It was like Axl Rose meets Ben Harper," said 25-year-old concert-goer Jennifer Forydce, referring to the Guns n' Roses singer and the soulful roots-artist, respectively. "I felt like I was in the '80s but I'm in the '90s. It was trancey, man."
Though the Swedish-born, New York-raised Cherry played his guitar on most of the songs, when he was sans instrument, he danced around the stage in a way that seemed intent on inciting a response from the crowd.
At one point, during the angry blues-rock number "Shooting Up in Vain" (RealAudio excerpt), he acted out the motions of a junkie shooting heroin. "We're going on the dark side with this one," Cherry said before playing the song. While another blues-rock tune, "Conversation," gave way to a jam session that showed off the talent in his four-piece backup band, "Permanent Tears" was an acoustic ballad of understated, minimalistic beauty.
"I have family here, so I'm a happy man.," Cherry said at one point, adding that his late father, jazzman Don Cherry, lived in Los Angeles. (Eagle-Eye's sister is dance-songstress Neneh Cherry.) "Anywhere the sun shines all the time is all right."
The British group Gomez, who opened the show, may have been thinking the same thing as the bandmembers played their first-ever show in L.A.
Drawing from their debut album, Bring It On, Gomez professed their adoration of music and it came through well and clear onstage. Looking like five undergraduates in their T-shirts and jeans (all five members were in college when they garnered a big British buzz that eventually nabbed them a record deal), the Gomez boys offered soulfully experimental tunes complemented by the versatility of the band's three vocalists.
While Ben Ottewell conjured up the soulful gruffness of Tom Waits, Ian Ball provided a pure pop-sound, and Tom Gray spoke-sung with a rugged cadence.
But it was on the band's single -- "78 Stone Wobble" (RealAudio excerpt), where all three vocalists alternated on the mic -- that Gomez had their moment. It was then that the primary elements of their sound were seamed together.
Tweaked American folk-rock led to pop, which led to blues, and Gomez hit their musical high.
"They're brilliant," said 24-year-old concert-goer Emilee Bennett, an L.A. transplant via London. "It doesn't get any more real than Gomez and it's only going to get better."