Bahamas is a hard act to Google. What’s a reviewer to do? If left to my own devices, I might start making assumptions based on the page one search results. I might think of adjectives like warm, inviting, pristine. Smooth. And, well, probably not coincidentally, I wouldn’t be wrong.
But there is a deeper layer of similarity between Bahamas (The Place) and Bahamas (The Musician): it’s how the way they represent themselves changes the way we think about their subject matter, how they invite us to create an idea out of them. Like a tropical marketing campaign that’s just one Google search away, Bahamas (The Musician) seems to be intentionally pandering to a familiar idea of escape, like a proxy for some interchangeably pleasant getaway of choice. Listening to his new record, Barchords, I could feel this in my gut as a sense of cultivated familiarity, even if I couldn’t tell what’s familiar. Maybe it’s the can’t-miss-it Jack Johnson vocals? The smooth hint of yacht rock? Or maybe it’s the Wilco-tinged guitar work. (Just try listening to Your Sweet Touch and Wilco’s At Least That’s What You Said without getting some serious déja vu.) If any of this sounds overly critical, then bear with me, because all that melted away in a live setting.
And here’s why: it’s because he knows that he’s teetering back and forth between subdued earnestness and smirking irreverence, while tending towards the latter. While his album sometimes felt adrift with the considerable open space he had created, his live presence filled these up with little winks and punch-lines, and a good deal more charm. Suddenly, his songs seemed more focused on enjoying the idea of our common reference points than merely using the reference points themselves. This hit home for me as he crooned away over the bouncy melody of ‘Okay Alright’: “Every time the phone rings, I run/ Every time George sings Here Comes the Sun/ Every time I feel like it’s all been done/ That’s okay, that’s alright, I’m alive.” He’s nodding to the Beatles while shrugging. If that’s not a mission statement, I don’t know what is.
Now that I think about it, the stage was set for this hammy-ness rightfrom the beginning of the show, with two sultry-voiced backing singers decked out beside him in shimmering gold blouses. It was when he played off of this self-consciously gimmicky flair that the live experience was most infectiously fun: sitting down at the back of the stage and trailing off in the middle of a song, before jolting back to awareness; speeding up the guitar interlude in ‘You’re Bored, I’m Old’ (what he called the “slow” portion of the concert) by abruptly cutting into double-time; talking up the coda to ‘I Got You Babe’ in advance by comparing it to R. Kelly and CrazySexyCool-era TLC; and then there was some kazoo-impersonating backing vocals somewhere in there, too. They all got a good laugh.
This unequal balance between earnestness and irreverence was epitomized during the encore, which opened with a no-amplification, mostly a capella version of the old folk standard “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies”, and led into a stomping drums-and-harmonica sing-along version of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels”. At that moment, he was telling the audience – whether you want to escape somewhere you’ve been a hundred times, or just somewhere you half-remember from ads on the side of a bus, let’s just get comfortable with each other. It was time to take an imaginary vacation from our stress, to sing along together at the top of our lungs because we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. Okay, alright. Awesome.