The mood was jovial at City Winery in Manhattan on a recent February Tuesday. There were some southern gentlemen in the house and their aims were pure enough. The Southern Gentlemen tour is the collaborative arrangement between Ed Roland of Collective Soul and Kevin Griffin of Better Than Ezra. Both bands stake their roots in the south (Georgia and New Orleans, respectively) and from the ambling demeanor of the evening, both appear headed for the same ends as my dear old grandpa and others I'd met while living in the south. Folks in the south could just go on for days about anything and everything (which, coincidentally, appeared to be the narrative of the Southern Gentleman show). They spoke about their families, their kids, their misadventures one day prior to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and their love/hate relationships with their respective bands (which, Roland says, is like another marriage).
Six minutes past the top of the hour and there was a fair amount of seats towards the rear which sat vacant. I wondered if that would change as the night progressed and it really didn't. Throughout the evening though I learned that the Southern Gentleman Tour began in this same venue months prior. Many of the fans who were here on this February night were also here in October. And it was a Tuesday night in the middle of winter; so in a way I understood the sparse audience. This seemed more of a thank you to the die-hards; fans who were there were cheering in full support.
When the two hit the stage I must admit I was a little taken aback but for different reasons. Anyone who knew Collective Soul in the 1990's knew that Ed Roland had something of a Jesus/wrestler thing going on. He had long hair, a beard, and appeared very muscular. He struck these epic poses, he led his crew around; shepherding them through their troubles as it were. Roland today looks totally different. He came out in professorial spectacles, had a curly gray bob-haircut, and had a suit jacket on. Having just brushed up on my Collective Soul earlier in the day I had to admit I was a little surprised.
Kevin Griffin looked the same. Basically the same. Tall and skinny. Roland I would later discover is only a few years Griffin's senior. However it was something about their respective dispositions which also made an impression. For Griffin who did a lot of the talking; he seemed very comfortable with Roland (and their percussionist/accompanist) and comfortable with the audience. Roland on the other hand seemed very comfortable with his stage-mates. And he communicated easily enough with the audience; it just didn't appear to be what he preferred to be doing. I don't know if it was just the way he was feeling this night but I got the impression that Roland was much more comfortable playing than he was performing.
These two showmen didn't waste any time jumping right into the fracas with one of Collective Soul's more well-known numbers, "December." They played a couple of songs together before Roland took to the stage himself to play some songs of his own, Collective Souls, as well as another group The Sweet Tea Project.
Songs rolled off his guitar which I was unfamiliar with. Lyrics like "Goin' to Birmingham" and "When it comes down to love" were in the mix. Then he introduced two new songs. "You Said That You Loved Me," had a droning and monotonous repeat of title or the line "it was a long time ago." The song ends with refrain Amazing Grace ("…how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…"). All I could think was some songs should stay in the studio. Apparently his wife agreed. He wrote this just the week prior (or so he says) and played it for her on Valentine's Day. She rejected it so he wrote an upbeat poppy tune, "All I really need is love." This song was full of biblical allusions "walk the earth," "once was lost," "lift you up." However when he capped off this tune with the same refrain from "Amazing Grace" it was funny. So I guess the lesson here is that you never know what you've got until you tag it with a familiar refrain. He also played a surprisingly reflective, quieter, almost pained version of another one of Collective Souls more well-known songs, "The World I Know."
Kevin then came on and played some of his songs. It's interesting I have very detailed notes from the Roland solo session but my only notes about Griffin's time was "Kevin played..." I think that's because he was a lot more entertaining. Don't get me wrong I liked Roland's songs but I guess it's akin to studying for a test or going to a birthday party. Or so it seems to me.
The whole of the evening came across less as a Southern Gentleman's tour and more of a real mellow jam session between friends. Their whole thing was just two singer songwriters telling stories, razzing one another on the couch.
I am more familiar with Collective Soul than Better Than Ezra, but I was shocked to find all the work that Griffin had done on popular songs with artists. The two guys had stark contrast in their demeanor. Griffin appeared that he could care less. He was impersonating Bono and took the stage as MASTERS OF RAWK!
Roland on the other hand was a lot more reserved. His demeanor was open but he looked tired. He appeared to almost be saying, "are you serious? You guys are going to let me play another day?" - as though he knows his jig should have been up. But he's a good musician. So he should just milk it. Maybe Roland is moving into a different phase in his life. Griffin on the other hand was busy singing about Daisy Dukes and Ugg Boots. I could picture Griffin being the kind of guy to leave the toilet seat up, as it were.
When both reappeared they played songs like "Shine" which had the extended "Midnight Train to Georgia," remix and "Good". The whole crowd remained engaged for both choruses and requisite "YEAH" or "Aha."
For their encore they came out and played a really brief medley of "Wonderwall," "Kids" (MGMT),"Shattered," "Feel Good Inc," "White Wedding," and I think that was it. And then the show was over. The lights came up, the doors swung open and we all spilled out into the streets.
And everyone who'd been to that show on that night couldn't stop smiling.