Har Mar Superstar returns to the Turf Club, 5/4/13
Har Mar Superstar Turf Club, St. Paul Saturday, May 4, 2013
Sean Tillman may not live in Minnesota anymore, but he still knows it's important to dress in layers.
Tillman's sex-symbol-by-fiat alter ego Har Mar Superstar took the Turf Club stage after midnight draped in a black hood and some sort of matching African-print mumu deal, under which he wore a lightweight suit and, we later learned, a black sleeveless t-shirt. When he left more than an hour later, he was shirtless, his proud girth glistening in the stage lights.
And yet, in a defiant act of artistic maturity, he left his pants on.
"I'm a fucking grown-ass man," he announced to the sold-out crowd, explaining his shockingly non-shocking refusal to drop trou. If he really wanted to be outrageous, he continued, he would perform an act which seemed to involve a butterfly impregnating a woman. (I didn't quite catch the details over the crowd noise, but I'm fairly certain it didn't happen at the Turf Saturday night. At least not onstage.)
At 35, Tillman may have decided to downplay, ever so slightly, the shtickier side of Har Mar Superstar. His latest album, Bye Bye 17, is ideal for anyone who thinks Tillman is a smart guy with a great set of pipes but occasionally wishes the way he channels his affection for R&B's more absurdly freaky tendencies was less cartoonish. It's a retro-soul affair kind of in the mode that Daptone Records has popularized, and he relied heavily on this recent material Saturday night. Or as he put it with customary hyperbole, "We're going to destroy your mind with some new shit."
So yeah, Har Mar's comic self-aggrandizement is still in full effect, as are his wry pottymouth asides (of the bouncy new Motown-inspired "Restless Leg," he said, "It's about my dick") and ridiculous dance stylings -- he was upside down by the end of "We Don't Sleep," his final song before the encore. And in fact, though the new stuff is something of a departure, older Har Mar material like "Power Lunch" and "Tallboy" seemed to emerge from the same groove.
Still, could we expect "Don't Make Me Hit You," which expresses squeamish disinterest in "all that kinky stuff" from the old Har Mar? And the new single, "Lady, You Shot Me," was every bit the showstopper the recorded version suggests it'd be, with Tillman singing the hell out of it. My only complaint is that it came too early in the set (it really feels like something that should be built up to) and calls for some more physical drama -- something like a drop to the knees, or some similar old-time soul revue moves.
The idiosyncratic horn arrangements that go a long way toward making Bye Bye 17 a success, emerging from backing tracks, were a little drowned out by Har Mar's three-piece band. But the group, anchored by the Steve Cropper-type guitar of Jeff "Catfish" Quinn (whose band Baby Boys was among the openers), was sharp enough to pick up that slack.
And yet, Tillman's got his work cut out for him, closing the gap between novelty act and neo-soul man. He closed with a version of "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday," the '70s R&B tune that Boyz II Men hit big with in 1991, and he sounded great. And yet, the crowd was in hysterics throughout. Partly it's the incongruity of seeing a pudgy white guy with such R&B chops, partly Har Mar encouraged the reaction, picking his nose and talking dirty. The song's not classic enough for this to register as sacrilege, but it's ... well, odd to watch a guy deliberately undermine the emotional impact of a song he presumably loves. A lot of layers to this performance, you might say.
Personal Bias: Though I ride hard for modern R&B, I still prefer Tillman's nasty indie-rock stuff as Sean Na Na, especially his 2002 CD, My Majesty.
The Crowd: The nerdier fringe of the indie crowd's fratty subset, excited women who knew all the words, some longtime Har Mar supporters/music scene mainstays, and maybe a few Mayer Hawthorne fans who heard "Lady, You Shot Me" on the Current. Overheard in the Crowd: "Unless he calls you out and says, 'This one's for Casey," I won't believe you know him.
Random Notebook Dump: Anyone who doubts the guy's charisma -- or his work ethic -- should have seen him command nearly full audience participation in this complex Vine shoot after he finished his set.
Body Request Girls Only Lady You Shot Me Prisoner DUI Four Shots of Jagermeister Sunshine Restless Leg Everywhere I'm Local www Don't Make Me Hit You Tallboy We Don't Sleep
Encore You Kill Me Power Lunch It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday
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