Caleb Hawley is kind of a big deal these days, not that you would ever know it by looking at him. Born and raised in Hudson, Wisconsin and living in New York City for the past four years, this messy-haired, sweet-blue-eyed guy is as approachable as your favorite bartender, but with enough talent and soul to leave you standing speechless.
You might have heard about the whole American Idol thing by now, but in case you haven't, here: Caleb Hawley tried out for this season's Idol and has, at this point, made it past Hollywood and to the group round. If you don't watch Idol, that's okay--just Youtube the video of Hawley's audition, where he sings the Ray Charles classic "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" and Steven Tyler freaks out.
No, seriously. Watch it now. Then continue reading.
Done? Great. Now you know who we're talking about.
I snuck up on Hawley before the first of his two gigs at the Aster Café on Saturday night and grilled him about this new world he is suddenly finding himself in.
"It was two days before the audition, and I didn't really want to wait in line and stuff, but I would have felt guilty if I didn't," said Hawley of the decision to try out for Idol. "It's so weird, because I think of myself first as a guitar player, then as a singer, so I was totally honored for Steven Tyler to respond like he did... That was a total confidence boost."
Hawley isn't feeling the pressures of his celebrity or the potential for his star to explode into white-planet status just yet, and mentioned how surreal the entire situation still feels to him. When I asked him how he ended up back here, in Minneapolis, for just this one show, he said he'd been looking for a singer-songwriter "listening room" type of venue, and a friend had referred him to the Aster.
"These are my favorite kinds of shows to play," smiled Hawley. "It's hard to connect sometimes, but in a room like this... these are the experiences that build an audience. I'm psyched."
Hawley took the stage right on time for his sold-out 9 p.m. show, and with his smokey, soulful Ray LaMontagne-esque sound and sparkling personality, he had the entire room singing along in no time. Hawley played a solid mix of original tunes and surprising covers--from Spice Girls' "Wannabe" to Destiny's Child's "Say My Name" (in honor of Valentine's Day, of course) that forced absolutely everyone into falling just a little bit in love with him as he played with good humor and unselfconsciously.
Then Hawley did a little segment where he played clips from Delilah--you remember Delilah, right? Syndicated radio host, "queen of sappy love songs" who doles out relationship advice to callers and then plays them a song for their story? Hawley explained, and he may or may not have been joking, that Delilah was his absolute favorite radio program, and he played little blips from her show and then performed a cover of the song she chose for the caller. Including Savage Garden's "Truly Madly Deeply." Yep.
Sometimes, Hawley sounded a little too James Blunt-esque for me--you know, where the singer-songwriter guitar-folk dipped too far into the sugar-coated love-strings of a clichéd ballad. But maybe that was all the Delilah covers. Either way, he's got a far better voice than Blunt--and serious talent, no matter how you cast it.
"I told you guys this would be fun," laughed Hawley, a gentle smirk on his face. The entire night, it seemed like he was playing to a special girl in her parents' living room--he was that damned charming.
"Does anyone have a request?" asked Hawley near the end of his show. "NO," he laughed for the audience when he didn't get much response, until someone shouted out "Single Ladies." "That's not my song," smiled Hawley. "None of you know my songs. It's okay." And then Hawley introduced an original dance to the audience--a weird little choreographed number that he closed out the night with as he danced his way off stage and into the hall, where he hugged audience members as a fresh crowd appeared for the 11 p.m. show.
It is almost too easy for Hawley to win over an audience. If he can win over Idol judges and audiences as easily as he could command the packed room at the Aster, he may just have to get used to playing bigger venues--something Hawley will undoubtedly manage with the same disarming smile.