A chilly fall Nor’easter brought Neal Francis blowing into Asheville’s The Grey Eagle on Thursday. The Chicago-bred piano man brought with him his ever-expanding songbook and vintage blend of R&B meets Rock n’ Roll.
Setting the mood ahead of Neal and his eponymous band was Asheville’s own Pink Beds. The up-and-coming soft-indie outfit set a mood that can only be compared to a scene from The Roadhouse in the 2017 reboot of Twin Peaks: The Return. The eerie ambiance crafted by the chillwave youngsters seeped through the floorboards at 185 Clingman Ave and will likely remain there through the rest of Halloween weekend.
For the main event, Francis took the stage as the velveteen raggamuffin he is, with his equally sharp-dressed troupe following behind. Previous samples from Francis’ upcoming sophomore LP, In Plain Sight, have proven the singer-songwriter a gifted wordsmith. Within the intimate confines of The Grey Eagle, however, the vocals amounted to little more than a whisper above the pounding rhythm section of his backing band.
Instead of a lyrical outpour, Thursday’s concert instead was a display of the raw power of Francis and his fellow musicians. Under the hood are Kellen Boersma (guitar), Mike Starr (bass), and Collin O’Brien (drums) who all keep the engine moving.
The grooves of songs like the show-opening “Alameda Apartments” or “How Have I Lived” are familiar, but without the guidepost of clear vocals receive a different telling in the live setting. Another side of the composition is shown as attendees instead stand face-to-face with the dense instrumentation put forth by just a four-piece.
Every now and then Francis’ impassioned delivery would rise his vocals above the band, like the crescendo hook of “Can’t Stop The Rain“. But when Francis would put his entire six-foot-something (in boots) frame behind the whammy bar of his Hohner, it was difficult to remember that he even had a voice. With a song like “Say Your Prayers”, set to appear on the new album, the band locked into a Funkadelic groove that left the composition itself in the dust. Though Neal Francis is not a jam band per se, his live shows embody that same principle of delivering a performance completely unique as compared to what’s on the record.
Going to a Neal Francis show is like listening to a jukebox playing all your favorite hits, though the whole time you’re asking yourself “what song is this?” The patterns are both familiar and unique, as Francis resurrects a classic motif of 1970s rhythm and blues that many of his fans have only heard on their parent’s records. His music is nostalgic without the sentimentality of yearning for a bygone era. Francis is a man of the times, just not our times.
The instrumental clouds parted once again for brief rays of lyrical daylight on “Prometheus“. Francis, shaggy head bowed, begs “have mercy on me.” Whether he’s asking himself, his god, or his audience is beside the point as he is simply a man looking for redemption. Leafing through Francis’ lyrics, there exists a Dickensian story arc of the rise-fall-redemption saga so beloved by the American public. Staring at Neal pour himself out onstage, he is both the man we all want to be but that none of us envy.
Perhaps it was tongue-in-cheek, perhaps it was a misdirection from his asking the audience for any Halloween requests, or perhaps it was a genuine show of appreciation that Neal took the band through the Golden Girls theme song “Thank You For Being A Friend” when they returned for an encore. Those in the audience looking for deeper meaning soon had their notebooks slapped out of their hands with the sarcastic show-closing follow-up of “Sentimental Garbage”.
Neal Francis’ tour continues tonight, October 29th, with a set at Suwannee Hulaween in Live Oak, FL. The quartet then travels cross country to celebrate Halloween at Outside Lands in San Francisco, CA. For tickets and a full list of tour dates visit his website.
Setlist: Neal Francis | The Grey Eagle | Asheville, NC | 10/28/21
Set: Alameda Apartments, Problems, How Have I Lived, Can’t Stop The Rain, Say Your Prayers, V Fine, You’ve Got To Change, Prometheus, Asleep, She’s A Winner
Encore: Thank You For Being A Friend (Andrew Gold), Sentimental Garbage