Jeff Giles may be an evil bastard who says nasty things about my mother, but I trust his musical judgment like few people I know. Well, except for yesterday, when he sent me a Contemporary Christian album by Lisa “Blair” Welchel, but in fairness, that was a proportionate response for my gift of Tim McCarver’s album of standards. I have vowed revenge.
Still, when I read his interview with Julian Velard a few weeks ago, I had a feeling his second full-length album, Mr. Saturday Night, was right up my alley, and I was right. Its blend of 70s pop and modern wit hit my sweet spot, and my purchase of the album coincided with his most recent arrival at Schubas in Chicago last Friday.
I had tweeted with Velard earlier in the day, and I introduced myself to him as a writer for Popdose as we walked into the back room where he would soon be playing. He said some complimentary things about Jeff, which can only mean that Velard has yet to receive a 27-year old CCM album made by a sitcom star from him. Velard also told me that the show was going to be something different, a whole presentation.
That something different is the titular “Mr. Saturday Night.” Taking the stage to the theme from Rocky and wearing boxing gloves, a bowtie, and a cape, Velard, in character, asked us to pretend that we were watching a live stream of a concert from his 250-square foot Brooklyn studio apartment. In the intimacy of the room at Schubas (capacity: 167), it wasn’t too far from the truth.
The character, a self-described agoraphobic New York Jewish singer-songwriter playing music and taking phone calls 23+ hours a day over the Internet, allows Velard to be simultaneously brash and vulnerable. He’s just a guy trying to live out his dreams, but real rock stars don’t have their concerts interrupted by a phone call from their mother watching online and calling in to say he looks handsome but she’s worried because his left eye is red.
Despite the homemade-Borscht-Belt nature of his banter, Mr. Saturday Night isn’t a caricature of a lounge singer, but much like the young Tom Waits’ sad-sack Los Angeles barfly it seems to be a stylized version of himself. It’s more a unique way of presenting the material than inhabiting a persona. I could probably wank out a review centered on how he is tapping into the Web 2.0 culture of trying to connect with the whole world from the safety of one’s own room, but none of that would explain just how much fun Velard’s show is.
The secret weapon in the equation is Ryan Bull. We’re told he’s Velard’s imaginary friend (he’s wearing a t-shirt that says, “Imaginary”), but he complements the sound with some versatile guitar playing and triggering samples of drum parts and other effects crucial to the presentation (such as the pre-recorded phone calls). From my seat, I thought he looked a little like Peyton Manning, but that’s neither here nor there.
But none of this would be important if Velard didn’t have the songwriting chops to back it up. He comes across as an amalgamation of the four main piano men of the 1970s: In addition to the characterization of Waits, there are elements of Randy Newman’s wiseass satirist (“Fellow Americans”), Elton John’s two-fisted keyboard attack (“Me and My Mirror on a Saturday Night”), and Billy Joel’s love of Tin Pan Alley chords (the unreleased “New York, I Love It When You’re Mean”). There’s also a good deal of pop-soul thrown in for good measure (he introduces “Sentimental” with a cardboard cutout of Hall & Oates, declaring them to be the epitome of the concept of opposites attract).
Listening to Mr. Saturday Night, I tried to imagine if this album had been released around the time the 30-year old Velard was born. Mo and Lenny would have spared no expense to get it heard, filling the album with a few choice credibility cameos (I like to imagine Steve Winwood singing backup and playing the organ on “Take The Money And Run”) and working it across all radio formats. Instead, he’s already had a bad experience on a major label and is now working small clubs, relying on word-of-mouth and hoping to catch a lucky break.
Opening for Velard on this tour is Sharon Little, a talented singer-songwriter who had some good minor-key songs, with Bull providing accompaniment on his acoustic guitar on all but two of her songs.