Winning this year’s best song Grammy — for penning Norah Jones’ breakthrough hit “Don’t Know Why” — hasn’t changed Jesse Harris’ life all that much. Yes, the fourth album from his band, the Ferdinandos, is being released on a (demi) major label now, but the singer-songwriter stayed close to home for this record release gig, held just a block or so from the closet-sized club that has hosted the band’s residency for the past several years.
Harris took the stage with minimal fanfare, clambering through the crowd to deliver a set that drew as much from his indie catalog as from his just-released Blue Thumb album “The Secret Sun.” The Brooklyn-based thirtysomething’s material is, for the most part, marked by moody lyrics and sparse melodies that split the difference between Morphine and Chris Isaak — if the latter were outfitted with a pocket protector.
Yes, Harris is a bit of a geek, right down to the horn-rimmed glasses, plaid shirt and weedy voice. But that’s a large part of his charm. When he sings of longing and regret, as on the wistful, country-tinged opener “Just a Photograph” or the lilting jazz shuffle “Long Way from Home,” it’s easy to empathize.
When the leader has a firm hold on the wheel, the Ferdinandos are capable of pumping up the energy levels as well, as on the Byrds-ish “All My Life.” Harris stepped aside a little too often, however, allowing guitarist Pete Scherr to cut loose with misplaced atonal overplaying — likely a leftover from his days with the Lounge Lizards — that sapped the humanity from songs like “The Other Road.”
By set’s end, however, the two were more in sync, Scherr’s twang curling around Harris’ high tenor like smoke around a flickering light bulb, casting a muted glow over the room.