BLAKE THOMAS & THE DOWNTOWN BROWN – Real Like Theater
If instead of growing up Irish on a diet of Van Morrison, David Gray had been raised somewhere in rural America listening to Johnny Cash and the Band, he probably would have ended up sounding a lot like Blake Thomas. While not obvious at first, it only takes a little imagination to hear the voice that confesses “ ‘Cause your presence is a present that I’m unwrapping every second,” (from “Morsels”) instead pleading “If you want it, come and get it, crying out loud,” or any other line from Gray’s monster hit “Babylon.” In fact, “Tip of Your Tongue” even features the same jittery percussion that begins that song. Once you get that idea in your head, it’s impossible not to hear it in other tracks like the gentle piano-based “On Grand Street” or the strings and jangly guitar composition “Mornings.” Though I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, perhaps the only things Thomas needs to achieve Gray-like world (albeit short-lived) dominance is signing to Dave Matthews’ label and securing an opening spot on his tour.
Of course, there’s a lot more going on here than just some sort of subliminal channeling (heck, in my constant struggle to find valid comparisons, I may just be hearing things). While Thomas’ full, rich voice (which earned him a deserved 2005 MAMA for Best Male Vocalist) could carry any song on its own, it’s his backing band, the Downtown Brown, that really makes this disc exceptional. Even in this group of mega-talented musicians, multi-instrumentalist (violin, viola, mandolin) Shauncey Ali stands out. His beautifully understated pizzicato playing on “Again & Again” and “Mornings” elevates those songs to another level. Theater also features a strong cast of supporting players. Among the notable guests are the Red Chemist horns: Steve Resnick (trombone), Jack Whitney (sax) and Kyle Alban (trumpet), all of whom give “Boston” its saucy jazz strut. That song also features Mary Gaines of the Moon Gypsies contributing lovely “a-whoo” backing vocals, in addition to tinkling piano from Downtown Brown member TJ Pedriana. Another notable performance is turned in by pedal-steel player Adam Davis ( “Nuthin’ New” would be just another song sung blue without him) and “I Wanna Leave Again” gets a boost from his country-swing playing, not to mention another stunning performance from both Ali and Pedriana. Of course, without the great rhythm section of Jeff Bail on bass and Justin Kunesh on drums, none of it would work.
But the real reason these songs work so well isn’t all the decoration. If you stripped away everything else and just left Thomas’s remarkable voice and guitar, you’d have a dozen strong songs that hold up well on their own. Once you recognize that, it is even easier to appreciate their beauty. And once you’ve seen Thomas, his fiery red hair and beard should erase those David Gray mental images.