When listening to Alex Clare’s The Lateness of the Hour on repeat for the past several months, I pictured Clare as dark, handsome, and brooding, a man whose soul poured like liquid from his throat. When I arrived at the Regency Ballroom on April 23rd for his concert, Clare turned out to be a rather short British redhead, complete with full beard and knitted beret, with an endearing awkwardness and a smile only slightly less jolly than Santa Claus.
The crowd at the Regency Ballroom was an unexpected mix of families, young professionals, and messy, drunken high schoolers. My attention was frequently drawn away from Clare by the saga unfolding directly in front of me: two drunk friends (or gay lovers?) had a falling out, one left, and the other made friends with a girl next to him when he offered his matchbook to light her joint. A man with an obnoxious nose piercing in front of them asked them to stop. “I have asthma,” he said. “It’s a real thing.”
With effort I refocused my energies on Clare, whose performance during this first part of the concert left something to be desired. His nerves were apparent; Clare seemed uncomfortable in his skin, hiding behind a combination of hat, beard, and microphone and bobbing his head awkwardly during instrumental sections.
Perhaps some of his nerves are excusable; this is his first tour and he is relatively new to fame. Clare’s song “Too Close,” which accompanied Microsoft’s latest advertising campaign for Internet Explorer 9, debuted at #68 on the Billboard Hot 100 and even reached #1 in Germany in March 2012. The song, thankfully, is much better than the browser, and many of Clare’s other songs feature the same soulful voice, powerfully simple pop lyrics, and driving bass that places them somewhere between soul, pop, and electronic.
Even so, it took the commercialization of “Too Close” to get The Lateness of the Hour off the ground. The album was released in the U.K. in July 2011 with little fanfare and resulted in Clare being dropped from his record label. Clare’s career might have been doomed to insignificant dive bars and coffee shops if Microsoft hadn’t intervened. Universal Republic came knocking after the commercial exposure and the album was released in the United States last May.
Clare’s background is diverse. Born in Northwest London, he began his musical career with the trumpet when he was seven. He trained to be a chef in order to support his music career. He briefly dated singer Amy Winehouse in 2006 and is a practicing Orthodox Jew. His music is influenced by everything from the jungle and garage music of his youth to soul, dubstep, and dancehall, and proves to be just as eclectic as his past.
After hearing him sing live, The Lateness of the Hour begins to sound lackluster, the process of recording eliminating a portion of Clare’s vocal depth. He belted every song, adding effortless vocal flourishes to his somewhat simple melodies. His rich and powerful voice was unexpected and overwhelming, but at times he fell into the trap of over-singing, betraying his status as a novice performer. Several of his ballads suffered when he sang them at the same intensity as the dance-pop numbers.
Once Clare put his hands on an acoustic guitar and simply played his music, he blossomed as a performer. He sheepishly introduced his acoustic cover of the American folk song “Goodnight Irene” by explaining that it was the first song he learned on the guitar. The sentimentalism fit him perfectly, and when he expressed his hope that the audience would enjoy the song despite its depressing lyrics, I was sold. The same humility and sweet self-consciousness would appear later when he taught the audience the chorus to “Where Is The Heart?” and asked us to sing with him. “I hope you don’t leave me high and dry,” he said earnestly. We didn’t.
Standout songs included “Up All Night,” which had everyone fist pumping and singing along, and a bass-dropping “Too Close,” the song that started it all. Clare even reprised crowd favorite “Treading Water,” singing with a new flair and performing with a new confidence.
Intriguingly, Clare chose to encore with piano ballad “Won’t Let You Down.” With his fantastic keyboardist almost stealing the spotlight, Clare sang simply and touchingly, harkening back to his singer-songwriter roots. Two audience members near the front raised their lighters amidst the electric glow of cell phones, the two small flames a tribute to honesty, imperfection, and the refreshing radiance of raw, untarnished talent. It was a poignant finish to a night of awkward affability and sentimental spirit from a new artist who defies both genre and expectation.