Photos by Lou Montesano
Having reviewed A.J. Croce’s new CD, Cures Just Like Medicine, I was excited about seeing him live. Reviewing an album means listening to the same songs over and over to capture the lyrics and find the threads that connect the music. The repetition often leaves this reviewer unable to listen to the songs for months thereafter, so to be looking forward to hearing Croce perform the same tunes so soon after immersing myself in them is as strong an endorsement as anything that can be said in a review.
The small but savvy audience that turned out for the album release party at New York’s City Winery wasn’t there to hear Adrian James Croce cover his father’s songs. Instead, fans called out titles from many of the nine albums A.J. has released over the past three decades. “I want people to shout out songs,” he said the next day over coffee at the SoHo hotel where he was staying. “They might own one record of mine that came out 15 years ago and I want to play the song they came to hear.”
A week before, he had debuted Cures Just Like Medicine in his adopted hometown of Nashville with the full lineup that appears on the album: David Hood on bass, Colin Linden on guitar, Bryan Owings on drums and guests, such as Steve Cropper on guitar and Jeff Taylor on accordion, who sat in on some of the studio tracks. At City Winery, Croce took on the challenge of performing solo. “I started my career playing solo,” he said. “I was a teenager, playing in piano bars, jazz clubs, blues clubs . . . there’s an intimacy to playing solo.”
Following an opening set by Robbie Fulks, Croce kicked things off at the piano with “The Heart That Makes Me Whole” from the new album. The song was written with Leon Russell, with whom Croce collaborated before Russell’s death late last year. “I played with him before I knew much about him,” Croce explained. “I met Leon backstage at a Willie Nelson show and we started writing together, mostly by email. I would send him the music and the melody and he would send back the lyrics, which was the opposite of what he normally did.”
Croce draws upon a diaspora of styles. Having grown up legally blind from age four until age ten, his earliest influences were Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. “Soul music was really what drove and inspired me.” Croce is a piano player first and guitarist second. Early rock ‘n’ rollers such as Little Richard and Fats Domino, jazz greats like Fats Waller and Mose Allison, the country blues of Mississippi John Hurt and classic rock of the Rolling Stones and the Kinks are among the artists and styles Croce cites as influences on his songwriting and playing.
Also from the new album, “Full Up” has a decidedly Randy Newman feel, although Croce says he didn’t recognize it until listening to the song in post-production. “I was thinking Mose Allison until I heard Colin Linden’s slide part and it reminded me of Ry Cooder. Then I realized it was a real Randy Newman kind of thing, with Ry Cooder playing on it. I wasn’t conscious of it at all, but there are some people who have become part of the fundamental way other people write.”
Croce covered Newman’s “Political Science” during the show: “They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise them. We’ll drop the big one, pulverize them.” Newman recorded the song in 1972, but as Croce told the audience, “it’s as relevant today as it was 45 years ago.”
From his father’s catalog, he chose “Operator” in response to requests, playing guitar in the finger-picking style he adopted from traditional bluesmen. From the new album, he performed “Name of the Game,” one of the last songs written by Jim Croce that until now had existed only on unreleased demos.
“The songs from the new album are still evolving,” A.J. says. “Some of them I’ve been playing for a year and some of them I’ve been playing for just a couple of nights.” He will continue touring in the U.S. and in Europe, alternating between solo shows and sets with accompanying musicians and background singers. Either way, A.J. Croce is a polished performer whose deep knowledge and respect for his craft is matched by a warm and humble spirt.