Billy Bob sings! Who knew? Apparently, lots of people knew, though not necessarily the sort who frequent Joe's Pub. It was an unusual booking and we were intrigued. We happen to believe that Billy Bob Thornton is an exceptionally gifted actor, and when it comes to performing in cabaret, acting is of fundamental importance. So, off we went to Joe's Pub a couple weeks back with high expectations for what we hoped would be an original evening of cabaret.
It was original; it just wasn't cabaret. That was plain enough when we arrived and saw the Joe's Pub stage jammed with speakers of every size and dimension, plus two sets of drums. We hadn't brought earplugs though, as it turned out, we would have had plenty of time to run out and buy some: Billy Bob and his band started their set an unconscionable one hour late. The audience was moderately forgiving of this but we were not.
Though we can't say that the show was worth the wait, it was certainly fascinating and memorable. Extremely expressive as an actor, Billy Bob is far more emotionally static as a singer. While he does have a credible country rock sound, he's downright surly on stage. This works for much of the show in that his bad boy image fits many of the rock and country tunes he sings. When he covers pop nostalgia numbers like "Game of Love" or "Hang On, Sloopy," however, his attitude gives them a harder edge than they want.
Though Billy Bob doesn't act his songs per se, he presents a strong persona through which the songs are filtered. That persona is mesmerizing in itself even when it has nothing to do with the songs, which was often the case at Joe's Pub. For instance, when he wasn't singing, B.B. would periodically leave the stage to take cigarette breaks--even in the middle of songs! Tall, skinny, and wearing a bandana of some sort that fully covered his hair, he had that "lean and hungry look." (Hell, he was performing in Joe's Pub, so why shouldn't we quote Shakespeare in describing his show?) Snarling his lyrics, Billy Bob bit off words, chewed them up, and spit them out with venom in songs like "If You Had a Soul." Happily, there was a sense of humor (though a dark one) evident in numbers like "Smoking in Bed," but the predominant attitude was one of blue-collar bitterness verging on despair. "Private Radio," a song about a depression that verges on the suicidal, was one of the strongest of the evening.
On the down side, a lot of Billy Bob's songs are repetitious, and their rock beat drives that repetition into your solar plexus. Nor does this performer seem to care much about his audience; aside from his late arrival on stage, he remarked that he and his band usually play big halls that hold one or two thousand people and then went on to say that he'd be damned if they'd adjust their volume for a room that only holds 150. (He thought that was funny.)
Billy Bob was also surprisingly defensive during the show. Having received a bad review in Time Out New York, he publicly threatened to kick the ass of the critic who wrote it. Actually, this was only one of many asses he threatened to kick during the course of the show. He's a kick-ass sort of guy who performs kick-ass music in various venues, but seeing and hearing him do so once was enough for us...although, if he should someday follow in Willie Nelson's footsteps and turn his talents toward standards, we'd be interested in attending again.