A certain maturity hung over Star 94’s 11th annual Jingle Jam Thursday night at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.
That doesn’t mean it was populated with seniors. On the contrary, much of the crowd appeared to be high schoolers attending with friends or parents and at several points during the four-hour event – namely, whenever the names Phillip, Jason or Ed were mentioned – the screaming reached levels heard the night before at Philips Arena for Justin Bieber.
But with a lineup of Andy Grammer, Grace Potter (and a Nocturnal), Alex Clare, Phillip Phillips, Jason Mraz and wunderkind Ed Sheeran performing primarily acoustically, the emphasis was on music at its most organic.
That’s what we call…heartening.
This show wasn’t about lasers or pyro or dancing, but instead allowed some of these core acts from the station’s playlist to showcase their musical chops. And those in the almost sold-out venue were just as eager to embrace the music.
Here’s the lowdown:
Ed Sheeran: A few minutes after Jason Mraz left the stage, the exhilarated audience began their chant: “Ed! Ed! Ed! Ed!”
Then when the lights dropped and the ear-bleeding screeching started, much as it did for One Direction several months ago on the same stage.
But this hysteria was directed at a disheveled ginger cutie with an acoustic guitar and a sleeve tattoo.
As he took the stage, solo, and stood behind one of two microphone stands, Sheeran launched into “Give Me Love,” but could barely be heard over the crowd eruption. The moment he finished, hoarse cries of “I love you, Ed!” ricocheted through the building.
If you haven’t gotten the memo, Sheeran, who will tour with Taylor Swift next year, is pretty hot right now. The 21-year-old from England is best known here for his dreamy ballad, “The A Team,” but as he exhibited Thursday, he’s much more than a one-hit wannabe.
The kid is a riveting performer, a guy who wants to teach his audience about music (“You do the high harmonies and you do the middle harmonies,” he said, racing across the stage and pointing to various sections of the crowd) and is as comfortable bounding through the rollicking “Drunk” or poignant “Lego House” as he is tackling a 19th century folk song.
The highlight of his set came when Sheeran asked the crowd for four minutes of silence so he could create loops of his voice and mouth percussion to play as the backdrop to that traditional folk song, “The Wayfaring Stranger.” Not only was it a pretty amazing construction of a song – and equally amazing that an arena crowd did, mostly, shut up – but Sheeran’s unbridled soulfulness and confident vocals made it a mesmerizing performance. One of the best live moments of the year, actually.
Well played, Mr. Sheeran.
Jason Mraz: A year or so ago, Mraz would have been the headliner on a show like this, but hey, he was just here this summer and seems to love playing so much, it doesn’t matter where he falls on a concert bill.
Joined by his tremendously cool percussionist Mona Tavakoli, the ever-laid-back Mraz kicked off his set with the subdued “The World As I See It,” but soon ripped into “The Remedy,” locked with Tavakoli in a chunky groove and heavenly harmonies (he even threw a little “Geek in the Pink” into the mix).
Mraz and Tavakoli have perfected this duo approach to his songs and everything from “The Woman I Love” to “Rescue” retained his summer breeze vibe. He did, however, spice things up with “You Did It” – changing a key word to a more family-friendly one – a playful song that marches behind his rapped/sung lyrics and featured Tavakoli using her drum sticks on Mraz’s guitar strings (sounds cacophonous, but these are pros, people).
His sonic embrace, “I’m Yours,” detoured into Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and his beautiful voice rang pitch-perfect and clean through the arena on his latest single, “93 Million Miles,” which he dedicated to his family for, “always making it safe to dream big.”
Mraz ended his set with the overwrought “I Won’t Give Up,” which the crowd greeted with swaying arms and cell phones aloft.
Phillip Phillips: “It’s good to be in Georgia,” Phillips said with a grin after a couple of songs, noting that he also had family in the crowd.
It’s been a wild fall for the Leesburg, Ga., native – and, lest we forget, reigning “American Idol” champ (my colleague and “Idol” authority Rodney Ho talked to Phillips a few hours before the show – check out his video interview) – and it will only get bigger for him next year when he tours with Matchbox Twenty.
The singer-songwriter-guitarist with the sweet smile and unassuming demeanor is currently backing himself with a celloist and acoustic guitarist to augment his own playing, and it’s a sound that works.
But Phillips could sometimes be a bit too languid onstage when crooning acoustic yearnings such as the pretty new “Gone, Gone, Gone.” He’s obviously in this to be a musician, not a star, and this musical setting showcased his artistic maturity.
Still, there are a few things to smooth out. He has a tendency to swallow his words or lose them in his drawling style of singing and his Dave Matthews mannerisms seemed more pronounced than ever as he reached for his upper register on “Hold On.”
Where Phillips always shines, though, is in his arranging, and the bluesy stroll he crafted as the intro to “Home” perfectly framed his great Mumford-esque breakthrough before he segued into the familiar version of the hit song.
As he sauntered offstage, Phillips flashed a peace sign and a thumbs up – likely a precursor to his 2013.
Alex Clare: There is nothing flashy about Clare, an unpretentious British fellow who could pass for Zac Brown’s cousin, but his big voice is memorable.
While his three-piece band (a keyboardist, drummer and bassist) overshadowed him on the opening “Relax My Beloved,” Clare recovered quickly for “Hummingbird,” an unconventional pop song with elegant keyboard work that reminded of Simply Red in their heyday.
The intense dub-step that Clare employs on many of his songs was a bit too bass heavy most of his set, but his huge summer hit (heard on a commercial near you), “Too Close,” sounded muscular in this format– more soulful and less generic-alt-rock. Hopefully, that song won’t define his future.
Grace Potter: She looks like a supermodel but is a pure rock star.
Potter is also a familiar sight in Atlanta this year – she’s performed two previous times – and she made mention early of her familiarity with the area.
“I’m never surprised but always delighted by how wonderful you guys [here] are,” she said from behind her piano, where she performed much of her set with Matt Burr, drummer for her band, the Nocturnals.
Potter is a potent rock singer who had to restrain herself slightly to fit these surroundings, but whether it was the bouncy piano riffing of “Goodbye Kiss” or the sad, yet lovely, “Stars,” she sounded clear and robust.
But it wouldn’t be a Potter show without a little grit, so she strapped on a guitar, showed off her stilettos, plunked on a Santa Claus hat and dove into a slide guitar version of “White Christmas.”
What really amped the crowd, though, was her razor-sharp cover of Joan Jett’s 31-year-old “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (if you really want to get technical, the song was originally released in 1975 by the Arrows) and her own unshakable foot stomper, “Paris (Ooh La La).”
Give it a few months and Potter will likely be back.
Andy Grammer: Saddled with the unappreciated task of opening the show at the stroke of 7 p.m., Grammer, who looks like Ewan McGregor and sounds like a less-raspy Sting, kept the crowd engaged with his sound-alike hits, “Fine By Me” and “Keep Your Head Up.”
Standing onstage with only an acoustic guitar is probably not unfamiliar terrain for Grammer, who likely spent many years proving his abilities with no accompaniment.
So he made his own during a cover of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” – a little percussive beat boxing and guitar-body slapping – and proved how appealing a blue-eyed troubadour can be.
(Check out our gallery for more photos from Jingle Jam.)
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene