Once upon a time, singer/songwriter Sean Hayes could be found busking his way through San Francisco, sharing his of-the-moment lyrics with anyone who would listen. While it’s been a long while since Hayes was caught strumming on the streets, Saturday night’s showing at SOhO worked to truly signal his arrival. (Nearly) gone were the solo acoustic jams, and in their place stood three highly capable bandmates and a whole lot of flourishes, including shakers, electric organ, and plenty of well-timed finger snaps.
Things started out well enough, with a sizable and sweet opening set from Ventura’s Lee Koch and his own backing band, the Grinders. Together, the four-piece dished up a mix of folk, alt-country, and cover tunes that finely primed the crowd for Hayes’s arrival. Upon taking the stage, the headliner and his multitalented bandmates—guitarist/keyboardist Eric Kuhn, bassist James Riotto, and drummer Ezra Lipp—immediately kicked things into high gear, grooving out to the sexy, bass-heavy “Turnaroundturnmeon.” Before they even approached song two, the mood of the evening seemed set; a fully orchestrated Sean Hayes may sound crisper, but the lyrics and delivery remain as loose and vulnerable as ever.
The setlist continued with a near-perfect mix of old favorites and new tracks, including the Southern rock inspired “One Day the River” and folksy “Flowering Spade.” Throughout the night, Hayes made sure to exercise every arm of his musical arsenal; he beatboxed the intro to Mark Farina’s “Dream Machine,” got all political on an unreleased number he wrote in response to the passing of Prop 8, and channeled his inner rock ‘n’ roller on the recently penned “Gunnin.” Later in the set, we got a little Talking Heads love by way of a cover of “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” and then got our dance on to Hayes’ classic hip sawyer, “Alabama Chicken.” Throughout it all, the singer goofed with the crowd about his strangely drug-like tequila buzz, adding a necessary dose of humor to starkly lovelorn offerings like “All For Love.”
Still, what remains remarkable about Hayes is not his lyrics—which fluctuate between eerily poignant and unarguably repetitive—but his delivery strategies. Even among some impressive four-part harmonies, Hayes’s voice proved to be downright intoxicating. It walks a peculiar line between Dave Matthew’s chortle, Bob Dylan’s gruffness, and Bon Iver’s inherent vulnerability, and it marks Hayes as one of the most disarmingly eccentric voices California has to offer.