The Dave Clark Five’s “Do You Love Me” was playing over the PA as the house lights went down for Mark Ronson’s El Rey performance, the curtains opening just as Clark commands “watch me now!” It’s a sly introduction for the DJ/remixer/producer, until recently a behind the scenester best known for his work on Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse’s hit albums, but also a misleading one. With guests, including Robbie Williams, Kenna, Phantom Planet’s Alex Greenwald and Nikka Costa handling the vocals, and a balky mic that left him inaudible when he introduced himself, “watch them now!” would have been a more accurate intro.
But that would not have been as much fun. Although Ronson spent most of the short 45-minute set off to the side, letting the singers hog the spotlight, his band and arrangements were the real stars of the show.
His new album, “Version” (RCA/Alido), shows Ronson to be a man with a talent for turning out party-ready grooves and a high-powered rolodex. At the El Rey (his local debut as a performer), dressed in a sharp, narrowly cut chalk-stripe suit and leading a band with a clockwork rhythm section and honking, assertive horns and arrangements that referenced the JBs, the MG’s, Motown and ’60s girl groups, Ronson revealed himself to be the latest in a long line of British soul revivalists.
Like any DJ worth their salt, Ronson knows how to get a party moving. This is the band you wish had been booked for your wedding or the senior prom. They sounded great on Ronson’s bumptious reworking of Coldplay’s “God Put A Smile On Your Face” and a surf-and-turf romp through the Ventures’ “Apache.” But they stumbled accompanying the early guests. Perhaps it was a lack of rehearsal or simply nerves from playing before a sold-out Los Angeles crowd, but they never meshed with Kenna (on the high-stepping revamp of Ryan Adam’s “Amy”), Tiggers (the smoldering, nearly unrecognizable take of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”) or SantoGold, whose arrhythmic, off-key vocal on “Pretty Green” — a fizzy pleasure on the album — was a reminder of Ronson’s abilities as producer. Even an old pro like Williams, who played a tug of war with the band on the Charlatans’ “The Only One I Know,” was stymied, getting by on the force of his personality.
But regardless of who is in the spotlight, what really caught the ear was the high level of the band’s musicianship and Ronson’s smart arrangements. They turned Radiohead’s “Just” from entropic self-flagellation to sweaty rejoinder and the Smiths’ “Stop Me If You Heard This One Before” into a slamming lost Motown number (an impression buttressed by the coda of “You Keep Me Hanging On.”).
The only singers who really matched them were surprise guest Nikka Costa, who brought the house down with a sweaty “Like A Feather” (from her 2001 debut– and Ronson’s first production credit — “Everybody’s Got Their Something”), and the unknown (until now) warbler Tawiah, who nearly made people forget the absent Winehouse with her no holds barred vocal on the Zutons’ “Valerie.”
Given Ronson’s production savvy, she might be a star the next time he comes through town. It’s a party you don’t want to miss.