Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Kiefer Sutherland blends authentic Americana and roots rock in spades at Belly Up

Kiefer Sutherland with guitarist Austin Vallejo, right, at the
Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Tuesday, May 2, 2017.
Photo credit: Bob Steshetz
As impressed as I was by Kiefer Sutherland's debut album Down in a Hole when it was released in August 2016, I had no idea how convincing the famed singer-songwriter (and acclaimed actor) would be headlining a full-length concert.

Sutherland's appearance at a packed Belly Up in Solana Beach on Tuesday night (May 2, 2017) was truly an eye-opener. This writer is not exaggerating when acknowledging the 90-minute performance exceeded many prime time performances I've caught at past Stagecoach Festival dates over the years. Backed by a fantastic four-member band at the Belly Up, Sutherland brought a mix of compelling originals (many written with collaborator and long-time friend Jude Cole) and select covers to the showcase.

The same depth Sutherland displays in his portrayal of President Tom Kirkman on the ABC-TV political drama Designated Survivor and in the 2015 western Forsaken (a compelling film co-starring his father Donald Sutherland) is something inherit in his musical DNA too. 

Kiefer Sutherland and his excellent four-member band.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
Taking the stage and opening with the original country rocker "Can't Stay Away," Sutherland used his distinctive baritone to bring power to the lyrics. He is already skilled at knowing when to step back and let his band bring additional focus to a song as evidenced when Michael Gurley (of dada and Butterfly Jones fame) unleashed a flashy solo using a slide in the opening moments of his concert.  

Sutherland and company then slowed things down, but that didn't mean the music making was any less potent.  "I'll Do Anything" is a beautiful song with a reflective mood and graceful melody that displayed Sutherland's sophisticated-but-straightforward knack for songwriting. 

Throughout the show, Sutherland was able to acknowledge the wide-ranging forces (both good and bad) that have shaped his life, and ultimately, the songs he sings. "Truth in Your Eyes" proved to be a tender country-styled tribute to "someone who passed away way too early," while other nuggets mined real life troubles that have resulted from having a few too many drinks; the sparse acoustic gem "Not Enough Whiskey" was particularly forceful with Sutherland's voice delivering the confessional lines in a low register (toward the end of the song he cleverly whispered the line "Goodnight") while he strummed his Gibson acoustic guitar and guitarist Austin Vallejo added gentle shades on a harmonica.

Kiefer Sutherland at the Belly Up.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
"Shirley Jean" has a depth that recalls the best of latter-day John Mellencamp, the story of a man who has long been on death row. On the eve of his execution, the prisoner pens a letter to the only girl he ever knew. In the song, the condemned man recalls how Shirley Jean still makes him feel. Sutherland's reading of the elegy was tangible and moving. 

Sutherland displayed an artistic sense of mixing up quiet introspective country folk and more uptempo rock material, as well as knowing when to throw in well-known covers to help listeners just discovering his music to see the natural ties that exist between his songbook and those legendary artists who inspired him. 

Among the reworkings of classics Sutherland delivered on Tuesday was an uptempo take on Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," an expressive roots rock rendering of the Lone Justice 1985 single "Ways to be Wicked" and a fiery rock-styled assault version of Tom Petty's '90s track "Honey Bee."

Kiefer Sutherland on May 2, 2017.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
An impressive four-song encore included one of the stand-out originals of the night, a song titled "Gonna Die," written about a young veteran that Sutherland assisted get some help at a VA Hospital. The song allowed another welcome opportunity for the gifted Gurley to dazzle with his otherworldly fret work. Also notable was "Rebel Wind," co-written by Sutherland and Vallejo, a work that showcased Sutherland's burgeoning ability to incorporate folk rock into his country-western/Americana/heartland rock mix.

The rewarding show didn't end until Sutherland celebrated his Canadian roots with a reworking of Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown," and a night-ending tribute to his father introducing him to the music of Bob Dylan via a weighty performance of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

While the 50-year-old Sutherland is a relative newcomer to making music commercially, it is clear his artistic muse knows few boundaries. His well-publicized time in jail, the loss of friends close to him and a good choice in musical influences add up to it being clear he is the rare Hollywood star able to help cast a light on bringing country music back to a more authentic place. 

Of his many demons touchingly addressed in song throughout the concert, Sutherland admitted to being a "slow learner" and a "work in progress."

But when it comes to the art of songcraft and delivering an unforgettable concert, I would say Sutherland has it mastered.

Rick Brantley at the Belly Up.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
Opener Rick Brantley featured his bona fide country folk sound during a fast-moving 30-minute opening set. Standouts included Springsteen-styled "40 Days, 40 Nights" and the probing "Hurt People." The Macon, Georgia native also earned cheers for his tribute to "modern-day cowboys" (police officers) with his melodic song "Tumbleweeds."

A great night start to finish.

Visit Kiefer Sutherland's official site for information on upcoming tour dates.

Review by Robert Kinsler

Photos by Bob Steshetz

Kiefer Sutherland at the Belly Up.
Photo: Bob Steshetz
Kiefer Sutherland set list at the Belly Up on May 2, 2017
1. Can't Stay Away
2. I'll Do Anything
3. Truth In Your Eyes
4. Not Enough Whiskey
5. Going Home
6. Shirley Jean
7. Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down (Merle Haggard cover)
8. Ways to be Wicked (Tom Petty, Mike Campbell song)
9. Saskatchewan
10. Calling Out Your Name
11. My Best Friend
12. Honey Bee (Tom Petty)
13. Goodbye
14. All She Wrote
15. Down in a Hole

16. Gonna Die
17. Rebel Wind
18. Sundown (Gordon Lightfoot)
19. Knockin' on Heaven's Door (Bob Dylan)

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