It’s always a little bit nerve-racking seeing an artist perform live for the first time, especially one that’s been garnering a lot of hype on the internet. With only three readily available songs to his name (two of which are demos) and a list of producers for his debut album that include some of the biggest names in independent music, Tobias Jesso. Jr is something of an unknown quantity. Last night, he played his fourth show ever — following a set at Pitchfork Paris and a couple of private apartment shows surrounding that performance — and he made the wise choice of creating as intimate of an experience as possible. Jesso was set up with only a Rhodes piano and no microphone right next to the kitchen in someone’s loft on the Williamsburg waterfront, just down the block from where Death By Audio was celebrating and mourning its final week of existence. There couldn’t have been more than 50 people there, mostly friends and a few members of the press. It was his first of three similar shows in Brooklyn, and it served as a nice introduction to someone that seems like he’s on his way to becoming a star.
Going into a show like this, you have a weird set of expectations, an anxious excitement mixed in with a little bit of skepticism. I’ve seen buzz bands crash and burn live and I’ve seen them soar and come into their own — obviously, I’m always rooting for the latter — and Jesso proved himself as someone worthy of keeping an eye on with his performance last night. His music is sparse and simple enough that I wasn’t too worried that what he was doing in the studio wouldn’t translate to a live setting (and the small performance space only helped with that). But I do wonder how his presence (which is good, but very singer-songwritery, if that makes sense) will come across on a larger stage. He certainly has the personality — affable and charismatic — but if his debut album is as successful as I feel it’s going be (and I’m betting on it being pretty damn successful), he’s going to need to think about filling out his sound a bit more to compete on the big stage. His debut album, Goon, is marked by muscular and effective drumming, so as long as he finds a solid drummer to back him up live, I expect he’ll fare well.
And he certainly knew how to work an audience. This performance was atypical compared to what his first official shows will probably look like, but it often felt like we were simply looking in on him practicing, which recaptured the magic of those demos that first brought him to our attention. Jesso broke up every song with some anecdotes about why or when each track was written. He went about this in a goofy and charming way, talking about how someone covered “True Love” but got some of the words wrong, about how he was nervous that he opens the album with his ex-girlfriend’s name (Mary Ann) and expects to hear from her about it. His interludes helped establish the personality for the young singer and it almost felt that by explaining where each song came from, he felt as though he had something to prove, which only made the performance more magnetic. During one song, he paused for a second to joke, “That sounds very Cheers theme song, I know,” and grinned. And it did, but it wasn’t a bad thing.
The one pitfall that Jesso could fall victim to is that his songs do sound very similar to each other. The tools he’s playing with are highly effective and, when taken one-by-one, each song has an overwhelming amount of breathtakingly beautiful moments. Jesso definitely knows how to tug at your heartstrings with his piano and convey a deep sense of desire and loss. But there was a time during the set where I felt like I had already heard that one before. Overall though, I was highly impressed. This guy deserves to be big, and I’m excited to watch him grow over the coming months.