Anyone who was looking to shake off the workweek doldrums last Friday night should have been at The Hamilton to witness Paul Thorn’s feel-good musical revival, delivered in equal parts Delta blues and country rock.
A former professional boxer who grew up as the son of a Pentecostal preacher in Tupelo, Miss., Thorn has an evangelist’s way of captivating a crowd and an attention to detail that makes him a natural storyteller. He also has a sizzling, rockin’ band that kept many in the near-capacity Hamilton crowd grooving and waving their hands in the air for most of the night.
Thorn’s songs, delivered with his honeyed Southern drawl, are populated with lovable hard-luck losers. But as he explained, their stories aim to make us realize “everything’s going to be alright.”
“Crutches,” a cautionary tale about the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse, becomes a story of hope in Thorn’s telling. As a slinky blues guitar shuffled behind him, Thorn asserted that a “backbone is better than a wishbone,” and vowed to “walk without my crutches someday.”
In “Old Stray Dogs and Jesus,” Thorn’s sideman, Bill Hinds, laid down wicked slide guitar runs as Thorn lamented, “Why’s everybody judging me when the good book says judge not/Old stray dogs and Jesus are all the friends I’ve got.”
“Fabio and Liberace,” is an affectionate tale of a male cousin of Thorn’s who “really liked to play beauty pageant” when they were kids. The song unspools a warm recollection of a wild road trip the singer took to New Orleans with his flamboyant relative, as the backing band repeatedly crooned “oooh sha-sha” behind him. The effect was endearing and hilarious.
Thorn’s signature song, the autobiographical “Pimps and Preachers,” explains how he learned much of what he knows about life from his preacher father and his uncle, who was a pimp. It’s an epic tale that that steadily gathered steam as Thorn’s band veered from a low-key blues dirge to ferocious electric rock.
“One drug me through the darkness, one led me to the light, one showed me how to love, one taught me how to fight,” Thorn growled. “I guess you could say I’m overachiever, and I owe a debt of gratitude to pimps and preachers.”
At times, the Tupelo native’s storytelling is reminiscent of the great Randy Newman, if Newman had been raised by a fire-and-brimstone preacher in the Deep South.
Thorn’s show had one or two misfires, “I Backslide on Friday,” veered into hokey territory, and a couple of songs seemed nearly identical. But those were small transgressions during a captivating and life-affirming two hours of accomplished music and storytelling.
Learn more about Thorn at www.paulthorn.com, and check out The Hamilton’s website for information about upcoming shows: www.thehamiltondc.com.