The first thing anyone mentioned was the hat. To be fair, it was a bold statement hat. There was nothing cute about it. Even fedora masters like Jason Mraz and Bruno Mars would likely shy away from the extremely wide brim and unyieldingly black color.
But, inevitably, the conversation seemed to settle on the voice. “Soaring,” I heard one person say as they left. “Effortless,” said another. In the car on the way home, someone asked, “How does he even do that?”
At his Cat’s Cradle performance on Thursday, Christopher Michael Taylor, known by his stage name of SOHN, allowed his voice to be the centerpiece of the often paradoxically dense and delicate arrangements.
At one point, in his song “Paralysed,” SOHN sings the line, “Nobody can slit my throat, nobody can leave me lying by the side of the road like you can.” In the hands of a less practiced vocalist, these words would come off harsh, guttural and painful to the point of cliché. With SOHN, they come off as tender, forlorn and relatable.
Hearing these vocals meshed with SOHN’s layered arrangements, it would be understandable to expect the artist to sing over one or two band members with a computer between them. But he chose to eschew any vibes that he might have picked up from The Chainsmokers and brought a talented set of three musicians along with him instead. The beats, electronic and viscerally thick on record, sparked with the live energy that only a drum kit could bring to the songs. Harmonies, pitch-shifted and dispersed throughout the recorded songs, were done on the spot with an unexpected crispness.
With writing credits for Banks and Aquilo, among others, SOHN has dipped into several corners of the dark indie-electronic music world. Early in the concert, it became clear quite quickly that SOHN is indeed, for better or for worse, a singer-songwriter. Performing mostly seated behind his synthesizer, it was not hard to imagine an alternate world where SOHN was just Taylor behind a piano on a lonely bar stage in London. Though he occasionally would stand or step a few feet away from his instrument, he was most comfortable looping and pitch-shifting and cranking up the volume on his synthesizer as he let his vocals float in and around the music.
Even with his singer-songwriter sensibilities, though, SOHN knew how to ratchet up the intensity when translating his music to stage. The songs from his debut album, “Tremors,” were performed live like a well-oiled machine. Carefully rehearsed buildups and hints of future songs wove together the various threads of songs. “Bloodflows” and “Tremors” both had the crowd cheering and swaying with the rhythmic pulse. Though “Lessons,” with its trademark rhythmic call and response harmonies, lost some of its impact in a live setting with fewer harmonies to build upon, the band still managed to supply an extra dose of energy and an extended intro to give the song a push.
Touring on the January release of his latest album “Rennen,” SOHN didn’t yet seem to have a handle on what the new hits were going to be. The band breezed through the new “Hard Liquor” rather than capitalizing on the rare chance in this set of music to play up the near-dance club beat. “Signal” and “Conrad” were performed exquisitely, if lacking a little polish from the well-worn “Tremors” set.
At one point, SOHN told the crowd, “We’re going to turn this room into a night club in Berlin!” Appropriately, he had brought along a full custom light show, with brightly colored bars of light scattered around the stage. The crowd cheered along as the light show picked up, but the crowd’s energy quickly faded away after about a minute of music.
Everyone there seemed content to just let the waves of music wash over them, buoyed along by Taylor’s undeniably gorgeous vocals.
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