In his native England, Jamie Cullum is accustomed to drawing huge crowds on his own, not opening for someone else, and his sets are largely improvised, two-hour rollercoasters, not a half-hour warmup. Neither comfort zone was in the cards when he opened for Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden, but Cullum is nothing if not adaptable, and he brought his unique mix of sweet standards, jazzed-up rock covers and high-intensity originals, and the quality made up for what we lacked in quantity.
Of course, the crowd was there to see Billy Joel, and many trickled in during Cullum’s performance. By the end of his set, however, we saw people turning to their neighbors, asking, “What’s this guy’s name?”
With few external arrows on his quiver, Cullum carried his portion of the show virtually singlehandedly, accompanied by only a guitar, bass and drums—bare bones for a show at the Garden. He had warned us earlier that day that there were only two lights on his stage, and “about two million” on Billy Joel, and he wasn’t exaggerating. It didn’t matter much, however, because Cullum’s got a light of his own.
Two songs illustrate his abbreviated set list. Cullum delivered Radiohead’s “High and Dry” as a poignant love song, morphed into “Amazing Grace,” then shifted back to tender, jazzy rock ‘n’ roll. His closer, “Mixtape,” written by Cullum and his brother Ben, chronicles his love of music (and women) “from Morrissey to Coltrane.” Written to seduce a woman, Cullum uses the song onstage to seduce an entire audience, first getting us to sing along, then, like a coach before the big game, pumping us up to jump on command. In a joyous, sweaty frenzy, Cullum pounds not just the ivories, but the piano sides, soundboard and strings themselves, working us into the same feverish rush he brings to every one of his shows—even as an opener, here in the Big Apple.
– Suzanne Cadgène
Photos by Ebet Roberts
Check back soon for Elmore’s in-depth interview with Jamie Cullum