As L.A. debuts go, this one is destined for the archives. Already a sensation in the U.K., where he hitched his wagon to red-hot producer Mark Ronson’s star, Daniel Merriweather wowed a packed house Wednesday night at the Troubadour, where such legends as Elton John broke in the U.S. And if the strength of Merriweather’s debut disc, “Love and War” — long on stylistic ambition and old-school instrumentation — is any indication, Merriweather’s West Coast maiden voyage could achieve similar historic significance.
Granted, Merriweather’s aesthetic is more derivative than original, but for those who value rangy, powerhouse vocals, rock-solid songcraft and top-flight musicianship, this Aussie represents a rare breed — respectfully making plain his R&B influences while forcefully commanding his own star in the neo-soul firmament.
From the show’s opener, “For Your Money,” also the first track on the new album, set for release Stateside Feb. 23 (it entered the U.K. charts at No. 2 in June), Merriweather led the audience through a veritable history of R&B: From gospel to Jackie Wilson and Sam Cook to Motown, up to the present day, when Ronson’s retro-soul stylings have helped boost the careers of such artists as Amy Winehouse and Adele. And while “American Idol” has made legato, vibrato and moxie as generic a combo as a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, with the same amount of empty calories, Merriweather emerges as the genuine article.
The singer-songwriter cites Stevie Wonder and Prince as key influences, but his smoky, sand-paper vocals most recall Terence Trent D’Arby, that late ’80s/early ’90s R&B pop auteur whose ego and eccentricity made him a punching bag of sorts, but whose talent was undeniable. As with D’Arby, Merriweather’s themes of star-crossed romance and hard-won salvation provide a throughline in his music.
At the Troubadour, Merriweather was backed by a highly proficient, all-Aussie quartet capable of the kind of funk stylings that have become Ronson’s trademark. Barney McAll doubled on piano and organ with groove-oriented assurance, particularly noteworthy on “Chainsaw,” which Merriweather described as “a song about drinking too much” but could just as easily be about the corrosive effects of unrequited love. And Tim Van Der Kuil’s proved equally adept on electric guitar as on acoustic, such as on “Cigarettes,” a breakup song equally appropriate for a honkytonk saloon.
One of the evening’s showstoppers was the Smiths cover “Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” originally a 2007 hit collaboration with Ronson in England, which Merriweather morphed into the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Another cover, of Paul McCartney’s “Baby I’m Amazed,” not only infused the song with added dimension but underscored the strength of the song’s lyrics and the original creator’s own gut-wrenching vocal prowess.
By the show’s encore, “Red,” there was no doubt that a new star was born.
For 90 minutes prior to the headliner’s set, DJ Samantha Ronson, Mark’s younger sister, proved why mixmasters have become A-list talents in their own right, plying her craft with the concentrated intensity of an air traffic controller.
Merriweather will appear at New York’s Gramercy Theater on Jan. 26.