E.J. Cox and band seemed right at home at the River Town release party at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez last Friday, where Cox and his illustrious backing band inspired all manner of hoedowns and spontaneous dances on the Maverick floor. The band drew a healthy crowd consisting of Santa Ynez Valley cowboys and cowgirls, Hollywood heavyweights — actor Jason Segel and Judy Greer were amongst those in attendance — and even fans from Alabama. It was something of a coming out party not just for Cox’s debut album, but also for the man and his music itself, as yet relatively untested in his new California home.
After a talk box-tinged set from opener Chris Pelonis, Cox and company began with a few E.J. originals. Cox’s songwriting abilities are undeniable — the lovely “Up Round Monterey” could be deeply felt on our heartstrings and stomach’s pits, while songs like “Long Ride” and “River Town” had that uncanny familiarity often best described as timelessness. Cox’s voice, too, is classic, a perfect conduit for his by turns homey and homesick tunes of travels and love tribulations. In the hands of the talented band, Cox’s material sounded just about major festival-ready, confidently focused and spirited. Bill Flores, on pedal steel, was a particular highlight.
Yet my main critique of the show is that, ready though his material may be, Cox himself still seems like he’s adjusting to the spotlight. At times he carried an almost recessive stage presence, as if he were unconvinced of being the star. Admittedly, many would be upstaged in the company of singers like Lois Mahalia — who just about stole the show with her powerful voice — or the seasoned set of musicians. Perhaps Cox is too humble, or simply too much a songwriter in his nascence, still finding the stage presence to match the strength of his offstage musical abilities. Or perhaps Cox is more inward-looking than the presentational polish of his surrounding band would allow for.
But as they happily chugged through classics like “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Crazy” in the night’s more rocking second half, it is clear Cox has the spark to ignite a fire. From his songwriting craft to the sheer musical heft of his band, Cox has all the right ingredients to rise to the hallowed status of his golden country musical heroes; now it’s just a matter of refining the presentation. Whether Cox needs to bring a little more bravado to the stage, or the band needs to even its tone, is the sort of thing future shows will smooth out. If the dancing hundreds at the Maverick are any indicator, Cox and band are off to a great start.