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March 17, 2010

A new Mayer for Soultown?

Trust in Mayer Hawthorne, a studio wiz who grew up a few miles outside Motown.

Hawthorne first approached the head of his record label with a few sample tracks that were the product of Hawthorne overdubbing himself as both choir and ensemble. The exec thought he was listening to R&B classics.

A couple years later, the young man who looks like a nebbish made good is basking in the glow of the great reception to his debut, A Strange Arrangement. He’s taking four musicians out across the country for most of this year to win over retro-loving audiences while giving them a few fresh changes. “Different cities get different songs,” Hawthorne says. “We just like to keep it real fresh and spontaneous.” A few weeks back in NYC, he had the cojones to open his show with James Brown’s “Star Time.”

Not all his inspirations and cover choices are decades into the past, even when the audience goes wild for his updated soul sides. “We were doing a cover of M.I.A.’s ‘Paper Planes’ for a while, and we do an N.E.R.D. song in the new set, and it’s gone over really well. I think people are ready to take it to 2010.”

That includes people from all over, apparently. Adulation at some stops has taken him by surprise. “About a week ago, in a city that I’d never even heard of, Northampton, Mass., I said, ‘Does anybody even know who I am there?’ And it was one of the best shows of the tour so far. Jam-packed, and everybody was singing along and dancing.” Apparently he’s also not too obscure when it comes to being noticed by music legends: “I just got a chance to work with Snoop Dogg — that was a lot of fun. I’m on a track coming out on his new album.”

All this attention is coming quickly despite Hawthorne’s assertion that he didn’t see himself as a singer until recently. When it came to finding confidence at the front of the stage, “I think I’m still learning that,” he says. “It just comes from being tossed out in the fire — I had to quickly learn or else be really uncomfortable out there. It’s a learning process, and I’m still learning about my voice, and in every show it gets a little better.”

Fortunately, on this tour he has continuing support from the same musicians who harmonized and provided musical backing to him last year. The collaboration on stage has reached the point where Hawthorne and the band can stretch and rearrange songs from his disc. “Green Eyed Love” is a highlight of many shows now, because, “It’s really a spot where my band can shine … I have so much trust that they’ll be true to the record but still bring their own flavor to it.”

Mayer Hawthorne w/ Nikki Jean
Wednesday, March 24
Zanzabar
2100 S. Preston St. • 635-ZBAR
$15; 8 p.m.
www.stonesthrow.com/mayerhawthorne