Segueing from movie star to rock star has been pretty easy for Billy Bob Thornton. The Oscar-winning writer (for “Sling Blade”) and thesp already had “drummer in a ZZ Top cover band” on his resume, and his rumored eccentricities — the vial of his wife’s blood he wears around his neck, his all-orange diet — would do even the most mystique-ridden muso proud. And to start his tour in his adopted hometown with a high-profile date at the El Rey bespeaks of a confidence (if not arrogance) that’s at the heart of many a great rock performer. It was enough to convince roots music avatar Lost Highway to release “Private Radio” last year. (It has since dropped the actor.)
Whether his 85-minute performance backed up his swagger is a moot point: It was better than it had any right to be. But like it or not, there can be no doubt of Thornton’s sincerity; his songs and delivery were very much a piece with his cinematic performances.
As in his best work, Thornton is most effective when he underplays — the power of his performances comes from what he doesn’t show. Wearing a Keith Richards-styled bandanna, his arm draped over the mike stand, Thornton’s natural reticence kept the night from becoming another celebrity lark.
Easygoing and quite comfortable onstage, he leaned into the crowd to shake hands, sign autographs or acknowledge familiar faces.
Backed by three guitars, two drummers and a Hammond organ, the music was energetic and thickly textured. Echoes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen could be heard in his vocals, and the guitars whined like the most plangent Duane Allman solo or crunched riffs like Lynyrd Skynyrd. His gruff baritone, as turbid and brackish as swamp water, never strayed far from his Arkansas roots. And he is smart enough to write and choose songs that play to his strengths, the one exception being a cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming,” which exposed his vocal limitations.
But nothing, not commitment or restraint or sincerity, can save material such as “Dark & Mad.” That song’s pretentiousness, as hammily overwrought as anything by William Shatner, with lyrics including “This cigarette burns like the pain in my soul,” goes right for the (golden) throat. He is better served by his sharply observed slices of life such as “Smoking in Bed” and “That Mountain.”
Thornton will perform at Joe’s Pub in New York on May 28.