From KCRW DJ Eric J Lawrence:
Despite my tender youth, I’ve been privileged to witness just about every kind of live music performance under the sun, from pyrotechnic-filled arena rock to opulent Chinese opera to improvised hippie drum-circles. Consequently I’ve become something like a sonic Anthony Bourdain, always in search of the unexpected and the unlikely in the world of popular music. Last month, an opportunity arose to check out one such event.
Comedian Seth MacFarlane of “Family Guy” fame joined a couple dozen musicians in performing music from his forthcoming big band album at Club Nokia. Fans of his show could easily guess his affection for that style of music, with its occasional excursions into the world of Broadway show tunes – heck, even the opening credits celebrate that sound.
Still, it’s a bold move for someone who is best known for low-brow (yet highly clever) television comedy to venture unheralded into the world of high-brow, old-fashioned musical entertainment. But having spent his entire professional career voicing a wide range of oddball characters, MacFarlane surely knows the limits of his pipes and if he thought he was capable of singing standards, who was to tell him he couldn’t?
The Club Nokia show proved he has the chops. And it proved the sincerity of his project as well, as the comedy was kept to a minimum, while he instead focused on the remarkably deep catalog of tunes he offered up. Sure, he managed to insult an entire country with a tasteless introductory joke and even got his duet partner, Sara Bareilles, to drop an F-bomb. But his sonorous baritone hung quite comfortably alongside the impeccably played orchestra.
If there was an obvious flaw, it was in his stage presence, which at times felt a little distant, especially when the band was soloing along and MacFarlane didn’t seem to have anything else to do but keep sipping at his water. In his defense, that style of music makes singers walk a fine line between being coolly detached during the instrumental passages or just hogging the spotlight.
It makes one more fully appreciate the skill with which performers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett could thrill audiences with nothing more than a microphone, a spotlight and a swinging band at their back. Should MacFarlane care to make this type of live performance a regular part of his career, I’m sure experience will help him find the right balance.
In any case, MacFarlane’s album of some of his favorite lesser-known standards, “Music Is Better Than Words,” is due out in September. The Club Nokia show was filmed for release around the same time, so you’ll be able judge for yourself how Sinatra-esque Stewie’s creator is.
ERIC J. LAWRENCE
Editor’s Note: We’re trying to get Seth on KCRW’s Guest DJ Project to talk about 5 of his favorite songs. Fingers crossed!