Newton Faulkner / April 30, 2008 / New York (Bowery Ballroom)
The so-called British folk-pop sensation that storms the charts in the U.K. but fails to break in the 'States, has become a kind of cliché. Enter Newton Faulkner.The so-called British folk-pop sensation that storms the charts in the U.K. but fails to break in the 'States, has become a kind of cliché. Strumming MySpace divas like Sandi Thom and Kate Nash have struggled to follow in the footsteps of KT Tunstall.
Enter Newton Faulkner, a 23-year old guitar virtuoso who crafts catchy, acoustic-based songs influenced by grunge, reggae, soul and metal. Last year, he scored an unlikely pop hit with "Dream Catch Me," a stripped soft-rock anthem that propelled his debut, "Hand Built by Robots," to the No. 1 spot on the U.K. album chart.
Performing solo at a packed Bowery Ballroom, armed with just a battered acoustic guitar, the dreadlocked gingerhead aired most songs from "Hand" -- finally available in the U.S. -- though the standout "Uncomfortably Slow," Newton's gorgeous post-grunge ballad was missing from the set.
He opened the show with the personal "Into the Light," which contains the line, "I feel like a muppet with a drunken puppeteer." It's a perfect metaphor for his unusual and jaw-dropping guitar technique -– a wild mix of picking, tapping and slapping that he himself calls "the slap-tap-bass thing" -– which is dazzling to watch.
Aside from the focus on fretboard pyrotechnics, Faulkner balances instrumental virtuosity with raw emotion. His old-soul voice can be profound and full of yearning, veering from a dreamy croon a la Neil Young to a gritty roar that hints at long hours spent listening to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
In between songs, he told stories and cracked jokes like an old stand-up pro, eager to connect with his audience, more interested in earning laughs than cultivating rockstar mystique. Without warning, he broke into "There's No Limit," the '90s Euro-dance hit by 2 Unlimited, for fun. And after playing a slow, meditative version of his calling card "Dream Catch Me," he tagged on a version of that song "how Kings of Leon would have covered it," launching into a raucous neo-roots-rock workout, which lasted 60 seconds.
But there were enough moments of quiet introspection, and they were equally powerful. The tender ballad "Feels Like Home," sung with a hint of melancholy, showed beautiful restraint, as did the shut-eyed rendition of Massive Attack's "Teardrop," in which Faulkner drummed the beat on the body of his guitar. Encouraging audience participation, he built the reggae-tinged "Gone in the Morning" to an impressive sing-along that had the many young international girls in the crowd swoon. Saving the best for last, he delivered a devastatingly flawless rendition of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," racing through all parts, from the operatic reverie to the headbanging finale, for which he used a distortion pedal. It was a final moment of raw virtuosity and pop brilliance that left no doubt Faulkner is an outrageously versatile artist who was born to perform. Now he just has to leave a similar mark on the audience with his own material.
Opening for Faulkner was the up-and-coming singer/songwriter Jessie Baylin, who sang bittersweet jazz-folk songs in an elegant voice that recalls Stevie Nicks and Norah Jones. She performed together with the formidable guitarist Tim Young.