When Tom Freund walked onto the stage in front of a very sparse SOhO crowd last Thursday night, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Shaggy-haired, scruffyfaced and clad in a baggy T-shirt and jeans, Freund’s appearance was more like that of a buddy to have a few beers with than a professional musician. But as soon as his raspy tenor began sailing over his clear, percussive guitar playing, I knew he could let his music speak for itself.
The most impressive thing about Freund’s performance was his instrumental versatility. Throughout the course of the evening, he switched between guitar, stand-up bass, mandolin and piano — all of which he played with equal prowess.
Within each medium, Freund created a solid rhythmic foundation for his vocals while using dynamics to build and soften his sound. He even managed to switch between plucking and bowing his stand-up bass without skipping a beat.
After the first couple of songs, Chris Joyner accompanied Freund on the piano. Usually, I become wary when a solo artist announces another musician is coming onstage to perform a duet; it is difficult to blend two instruments so that they enhance each other instead of competing with each other — especially when one of those instruments is a keyboard. However, Freund and Joyner are two instrumentalists with the maturity to have a musical dialogue. Joyner, a songwriter in his own right, managed to stay in the background while still complementing Freund’s songwriting with bluesy fills and well-placed harmonization.
While Freund’s musicianship is admirable, his songwriting is less impressive. His songs, though pleasantly similar to those of Nick Drake, Jack Johnson and Freund’s longtime friend Ben Harper, lack an original sound of their own. In my opinion, a great songwriter’s musical influences should never be imitated, but rather incorporated. There is already one Nick Drake; we don’t need another.
Freund’s lyrics also leave something to be desired. In his catchy love ballad, “Collapsible Plans,” he sings, “Sugar don’t get no sweeter than this, I know / I’ve been at this thing a long, long time.” This is cute, but with so many love songs in the world, it doesn’t quite cut it for someone in the arena of professional songwriting. Yet clichés and lazy lyric writing are all-too-common pitfalls for the songwriter who is a musician first and lyricist second. Still, I’d rather pair uninspired words with Freund’s nuanced, folk-y and beautiful arrangements than with the equally uninspired music of some Justin Bieber-esque Three Chord McGee.
Despite any criticisms, I enjoyed Freund’s performance and would go see him again. Some of the highlights included the guitar driven “Copper Moon” and the heartbreakingly earnest, mandolin-backed ditty “Victoria, Queen of the Desert.” My favorite, though, was Freund’s sexy and gritty-as-hell jazz cover of the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry,” for which he played his own accompaniment on stand-up bass — with some delicious jazz piano from Joyner. I was dazzled.
So, if you love that classic American, blues-tinted, folk-rock sound that I am hooked on, you should go to iTunes and buy some Tom Freund songs. You’ll be glad you did when he’s setting the mood for a giddy, drunken roll in the hay with a new love interest. You’ll also be pleased to find that those songs will come in handy when you find that same love interest canoodling = with your best friend and you need something to cry to.