By Max Stewart
Theo Katzman is one of those rare talents that seems to have tapped into a deeper realm of musical consciousness, a place that the rest of us would be lucky to visit for a few days. Even before he struck the first chords of the set on “Pop Song,” Katzman walked onto the stage at Vienna, VA’s Jammin Java and appeared to have a spiritual moment as he hummed the key of the first song to himself. “Someone save my soul, I sold it to Billy Joel…” he wailed on the infectious opener, representing the first of many moments of the night that I actually considered that maybe he did sell his soul for some Soulful groove in a Robert Johnson-like scenario. Selling soul for soul? Seems like a fair trade.
The lyrics of the opener shamelessly acknowledged that as the world turns and “politicians, preachers teach us right from wrong”, he is “too busy trying to write a pop song”; Katzman clearly lives and breathes music. And what’s even more remarkable, is how effortless it appears for him to perform at such a high caliber. I mean, he walked to the stage with no shoes, unabashedly confessing he had accidentally left them in New York the night before, but seeing it as an opportunity to “embrace his hippy side”. The man may forget his shoes, but don’t count on him playing any flat notes or singing remotely out of tune.
Best known for his work with funk band Vulfpeck – in which he acts as singer and multi-instrumentalist, switching between guitar and drums – his solo material is a place where Katzman can live his Rock ‘N’ Roll dream, alongside Vulfpeck bassist extraordinaire Joe Dart: “Truly, this is what feels like the real me. But, my collaboration with Vulfpeck is so good and they became so popular, it is an opportunity to play that kind of music. It is just a matter of what hits, and what you have an opportunity to do in your life. And for me, Vulfpeck just took off. And at the same time, I feel like I need to scratch this musical itch of what I feel like is kind of my thing. And that’s kind of why I do all of them, cause they kind of feed one another”.
Throughout the night, Katzman, Dart, keyboardist Jacob Jeffries and drummer Julian Allen played the entirety of the new album, Heartbreak Hits, a batch of undeniably catchy Pop Rock songs. Even beyond the superb songwriting on the new record, Katzman has one of the best tenor voices in modern music, which in concert sounded like Al Green joining a Cheap Trick cover band. His soulful vocal inflections and passionate outpouring of melodicism never felt gimmicky, always serving the song in the best way, especially on the Cars-esque anthem “Lost and Found” and the down-tempo “Good to Be Alone”.
There were lightning bolts of guitar improvisation, where Katzman would play a guitar fill and oftentimes sing over the phrase. These moments of the night were rare and happened so fast that if you blinked you would have missed ‘em, but they further displayed his wide-ranging musical competence. The songs on Heartbreak Hits generally seem to have an accessible vibe, but it became clear seeing them performed in person that Katzman was playing complex chord structures and unique scales, never electing to take the easy path. Keyboardist Jeffries echoed that sentiment: “The songs are deceptively complex! You think they are just catchy, but there are so many layers to his songs…”
“Hard Work” is one of the hookiest Rock tunes to be released this year and a highlights of the night, appreciated by everyone from casual FM radio listeners to Indie Rock snobs. The lyrics of “Crappy Love Song” hit home the dichotomous theme of Heartbreak Hits, earnest and catchy with a touch of tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecation. If you have ever had the pleasure of seeing Vulfpeck live, you know Katzman is manically running back and forth between drums and guitar, switching roles with Jack Stratton: “It is challenging to keep up on all instruments, for me. If I only played drums every day, I’d probably be better. But I try to let the song be the through- line.”
Katzman’s enthusiastic persona kept the evening fun, especially during the in-between-song, on-stage banter: “We are in Vienna… Where are all the Germans?”, “This is the part of the show where I realize I left my capo in my guitar case, can someone go get that in the green room?”, and, in reference to selling tank tops and not shirts at the merchandise table, “Tank nation… Tank it or leave it (coined by Dart)!”. Katzman confessed that he does not do drugs or drink excessively, because his shoe-losing, capo-forgetting lively personality is “the real me” and to mix in alcohol or drugs might create havoc. It was obvious that Katzman reveled in the strong artist-audience connection at Jammin Java’s 200-capacity club: “I think it is easier to feel the energy of a small room, outdoors it is kind of tough. I will always feel the best in a rock club, it doesn’t mean I don’t love the festivals. But I prefer this kind of thing, the people are really listening, I really like the challenge.”
It seems Katzman could work a crowd of any size, whether it be the conducting the vocal crowd participation in “My Heart Is Dead” (also see the Vulfpeck Bonaaroo performance of “Christmas in L.A.”), or captivating the audience while confessing his unapologetic love of Third Eye Blind (and more specifically, “Graduate”) and why his angsty, Nineties heart thought it was cool that producer Tyler Duncan mixed his new record on VHS tape.
There were many moments of subtle introspection, especially during the powerful untitled solo song he performed, the Continuum-era Mayer feeling “My 1-Bedroom”, the Indie Pop gem “Break Up Together”, and the endearing “Love Is a Beautiful Thing”. “Plain Jane Heroine” is one of the strongest and most authentic tunes on Heartbreak Hits, and it was an apex of the main set. The musical wheels were always turning as Katzman would quietly sing drum parts at the start of songs and close his eyes to visualize which direction he would take a vocal line; wildly-talented bassist Dart asserted after the show that Katzman is always fully aware of everything going on and the where the song is headed when he is performing.
“As the Romans Do” was Power Pop at its finest, like Rick Springfield sitting in with Weezer. A fan in the audience brought a sign requesting a cameo from the groove-fueled Vulfpeck rhythm section: Katzman taking the reins at drums and Dart on bass. It was a good-timing way to end a great night of music. “This is my first official solo tour, I am really blown away by all of the people here, this is a dream of mine,” Katzman said with heartfelt sincerity, staying till the wee hours of the night to meet and talk (not just “Hello”, “How are you?”, but REALLY have a conversation) with all fans who stuck around afterwards. He was even manning the credit card payment machine at his merch booth. This dude is a man of the people, folks.
Earlier in the night, local singer-songwriter Sara Curtin opened the show with a soothing set of folk tunes, and she guaranteed that Katzman would “be everyone’s best friend by the end of the night”. She also told a story in which Katzman was her drummer for a show in Michigan while they were in college. Apparently, he could not make rehearsal but instead, minutes before the gig, “beat-boxed” her songs with her in the parking lot of the venue and went on stage and killed it. No surprises there.
Katzman has musicianship and showmanship in his DNA. To see him in his element, be sure to catch him live on his solo tour, before he graduates to bigger and bigger venues: “I do have a lot of musical itches to scratch and I love collaboration. I would have always done what you see tonight, because this is my thing”.
View tour dates: http://www.theokatzman.com/shows/
Theo Katzman – Jammin Java – Vienna, VA – 4.15.17
SET: Pop Song, Hard Work, Break Up Together, Crappy Love Song, My Heart Is Dead, Good to Be Alone, Lost and Found, My 1-Bedroom, Solo Untitled Song, Plain Jane Heroin
Encore: Love Is a Beautiful Thing, As the Romans Do, Jam (Katzman on Drums, Dart on Bass)