A few seconds after the lights went down, Allen Stone's instantly-recognizable hatted, long-haired, bespectacled, and cardigan'd silhouette lurched across the Neptune Theatre stage in the darkness to enormous welcoming cheers. It could only have been him.
“I've never been higher in my whole life!” he exclaimed as the stage lights went up, revealing a 20-piece Seattle Rock Orchestra assembled neatly in black in two rows at the back and his guitarist, bassist, and drummer waiting patiently at their instruments.
Perched on a stool in front of a mic stand, Stone effused excited gratitude and beamed joy. He opened with “Bed I Made.” His drummer snapped a perfect rim-shot as violins were finger-picked in the background, their bows bobbing in the air like rubber giraffes in the bath, as Stone picked at guitar chords and gently blasted a wondrous Stevie Wonder-esque vocal from a wide, open smiling mouth that was a sky of teeth and a sea of tongue.
Wearing his trademark gas station-carousel mom-glasses and a black pork pie hat that showered his head in straggly blonde locks, he also sported a busy blue, red, and yellow patterned cardigan that would make even the most outlandish Christmas sweater look positively boring by comparison. Underneath he wore an unbuttoned denim shirt that revealed a light blue vintage Alaska-logo t-shirt. Slightly baggy purple-gray pants and blue-black shoes completed his outfit.
And this is the first thing people will tell you about Allen Stone, the first thing after they've expressed nothing but awe and praise for the rich, powerful, unwavering, steady stream of heartfelt soul that is his voice, that he looks absolutely nothing like he sounds. There must be a small part of every record exec that's dying to get their hands on Stone that wishes he was a little more of an easier sell image-wise, like his modern soul contemporaries Mayer Hawthorne and Raphael Saadiq, who come in relatively well-defined packages. (Despite the pair being hugely successful in the genre, Stone sings much better than both of them.) Or that he could also beatbox and dance and therefore sell him as another Justin Timberlake.
But that's where Stone is careful to be different, casually enigmatic, and true to himself above all. Being different, casually enigmatic, and true to himself will serve him far better in the long run and he knows it. Dressed like every day is laundry day, he's what most people would expect to find in a Seattle coffee shop playing Mudhoney covers on a battered acoustic very, very badly. After you see him perform live, however, and after he completely wins you over with his singular vocal style and elated stage presence and his complete mastery of his just-got-into-a-fight-with-a-rack-of-clothes-at-Goodwill-and-the-rack-won image, it's somehow hard to imagine him looking like anything else.
Last night, Stone was genuinely enjoying himself at every moment. Despite his wrenched grimacing to reach the proper emotion required to perform some songs whose lyrics are steeped in pain, he was having a brilliant time. It was hard to feel bad at all. Joy underpinned everything at this second night of two sold-out consecutive shows for Allen Stone at the Neptune.
“Killing Time” and “Breathe Anymore” followed. Stone was wordy and passionate between songs, sometimes lapsing into the beginnings of a Southern accent as he implored the crowd with Motown and James Brown soul music rhetoric. Friendly and chatty, he proclaimed his love for every member of the audience virtually every chance he got. You got the feeling it was genuine, though.
He was more than comfortable behind the mic hyping the crowd and more than comfortable being a celebrant of all things good in life for the evening; clearly the fruits of growing up as a pastor's kid and a long experience of leading worship in churches. “Thanks for braving the snow to come see this hippie” Stone said, emphasizing his point with dual clenched fists. A couple of people shouted out “Yeah hippie!” and “I like your sweater!” but he ignored them both with a cool professionalism as he went to pick up his guitar for his next song.
“We're gonna funk the crap outta y'all!” Stone then warned, tiptoeing around the profane, before launching into “Shelter.” Later on his language would get slightly saltier when he would instruct us to “greasy up this bitch, okay?”
The Seattle Rock Orchestra then left the stage with Stone while his keyboardist and organist joined the rest of the band at their instruments, forming an eight-piece with the addition of a trumpet and sax. Stone galloped back onstage a few moments later. The energy in the venue intensified as the song tempo notably increased, and Stone couldn't stop jittering and swaying his hips to the beat, half-dancing, half-convulsing. His hands flapped in agitation, his “spirit fingers” plucked a million invisible harps that surrounded his head, and the top half of his body gently jerked around while the bottom half stayed largely rooted to the spot in front of his mic stand, like Thom Yorke panicking at the top of a tree in a windstorm. He never repeated the same move twice. It was both captivating and the diametric opposite of Lana Del Rey's sedated and unprepared performance on SNL this weekend. (Surely after playing on Conan recently it's only a matter of time before we see Stone perform on SNL? One imagines that he'd be pretty entertaining in sketches too.)
After the upbeat “Sleep,” Stone cut the audience in two and announced a “Dance-Off” between them, to which we all happily obliged by dancing as hard as we all could. Stone made fun of those in the crowd dancing weakly: “Y'all dance like you're from Wallingford!” His keyboardist spelled out “2-0-6” with three different hand actions and after the highly energetic “Dance-Off” had finished, mock-scowled at his instrument and fanned the imaginary heat from his keys with his stage towel.
A singalong to “Say So” followed, plus “Your Eyes,” a cover of Bob Marley's “Is This Love?” (Stone owned the song and made it sound like he wrote it), and a cover of “I Can't Make You Love Me,” popularized by Bonnie Raitt in 1991.
The Seattle Rock Orchestra shuffled back onstage for the first encore to perform “Contact High.” After a list of appreciative thank you's to a list of people, Stone set the stage alight one last time with “Satisfaction.” It ended with his entire band standing and pounding at their instruments.
The second encore saw Stone giving a swift but reflective minute-long sermon on the beauty of humility before starting to play “Last to Speak.” He then finished with his most well-known song to date: “Unaware.”
In support was Allen's friend Noah Gundersen. Allen Stone looks like his name should be Noah Gundersen. Noah Gundersen looks like his name should be Allen Stone. In stark contrast to the beanied and dreadlocked Noah previously seen performing in Seattle, tonight's Noah was clean-shaven and sensibly coiffed, snappily dressed in brown leather shoes, black jeans, and a black v-neck t-shirt with a tattoo peeking from the left side of his collar.
Gundersen sang both powerfully and delicately with expert control and understatement. His sparse chords on his acoustic guitar left plenty of space in his songs that were filled with equal parts bar chatter and rapt attention. When he sang “You remind me of cigarettes,” there was nearly a whole three seconds of silence before he continued with “The way I hold you in my chest.” His sister Abby Gundersen sang harmonies and played violin to accentuate the soaring verses and chorus of his songs. The introductory stomp of “Fire” had both of them facing each other, stamping the stage with their feet as hard as they could, and staring intently at the floor like they were both suddenly wondering whether they'd left the gas on. The siblings were then joined onstage by three more friends to sing harmonies, including Hot Bodies in Motion's Zach Fleury, his trilby, wool trenchcoat, red shirt and gray stripe-patterned tie making him literally look like a singing detective. It felt like a family had gathered to sing together and it sounded incredible. Everyone's head happily bobbed onstage to the rhythm. As Gundersen's set ended, he walked to the very front of the stage as the house lights came up and motioned for his friends behind him to do the same. We all sang and clapped as one as Gundersen led, his vocals the focal point of the performance. As with Allen Stone, and as with all great singers, first and foremost, it was all about the voice.
Read City Arts' recent cover story on Allen Stone from our December 2011 issue here.
Photo from Stone's Jan. 14 performance at the Neptune Theatre by Brad Curran.