Once upon a time (circa 2004), Ryan Cabrera was a new face, introduced to many (most?) by way of his then-girlfriend, Ashlee Simpson via her MTV reality show, The Ashlee Simpson Show. Despite his Muppet hair and whiny voice, Cabrera’s major-label debut, Take it All Away, peaked at #6 on The Billboard 200 chart, fueled largely by hit single “On the Way Down.” Now, nearly a decade later, Ashlee Simpson is long gone, and it’s been six years since Cabrera last released an album. Nonetheless, he’s inexplicably touring with my beloved Keaton Simons (for whom I’d do most anything), and so I had no choice but to subject myself to an evening of his music last week at what turned out to be my farewell show to the soon-to-close Red Devil Lounge.
The night began pleasantly enough: opener Mike Annuzzi is a delightful local guy. I previously met Mike when he opened for Tyrone Wells about a year and a half ago. Since then, he’s released an eponymous album, thus giving him more material from which to select a good set. He began with “Let Me Show You Tonight” and then paused to introduce his band. Annuzzi confessed that he was “really excited,” prompting drummer Nick to tease him with a brief drum roll. “Settle down, you guys, it’s only Wednesday!” He teased the silent crowd as he began the next song, “Come Back to Me.”
“How y’all feelin’? I’m so excited to see Keaton Simons play! And thank you to Ryan Cabrera for having me on, too!” Annuzzi gushed. He went on to explain that he used to play Cabrera’s songs at open mic nights when he “first started out,” so “tonight means so much to me.” Next came “Give Me Freedom,” after which Annuzzi did some quick math. “You know, this is awesome! I think I see, like, two guys in the audience, and the rest… woo woo! Sexy ladies!” This guy is adorable. He’s not cheesy, obnoxious, or awkward, but comes off sweet, charming, and okay, maybe he tries a little too hard. I’m not sure I care to sue him for it. Someone in the crowd could be heard suggesting to a friend that she “take off your panties and throw ’em on stage!” Without missing a beat, Annuzzi quipped that he’d “give you a free CD if you do that!” Moving right along, he explained that his second record had just been released (the aforementioned self-titled album), and that he had copies in the back. “Come talk to me so I can share the music with you!” His next song was from the new album, and was “You Make Me Fall.”
After “This Time” without the band, Annuzzi announced, “I have a couple more.” He then paused briefly for a “quick story.” His best friend, he explained, had come to him and lamented, “she left me! After three years, she left me!” Annuzzi’s response? “Bro, thank God!” And then he wrote the next song, “I Don’t Love You Anymore.” (Which was the highlight of his set for those of us who needed a break from his uber-romantic lyrical sentiments.) After reminding the crowd to come “say hi” at the merch table later, Annuzzi closed his brief set with title track from his first album, Paradise.
Shortly, it was time for Keaton Simons to take the stage. He began with a new song, “When I Go,” after which he admitted he recognized “the irony in opening a set with a song about ‘time to go!'” Next was another new song, co-written with a woman in the audience (whose name I sadly didn’t catch), “Little White Liar.” It’s great to hear Simons’ new music; it’s been a long time coming. And like Annuzzi, Simons has put out some sentimental and love-y tunes lately, so the new tunes are a nice departure (and something of a return to the lyricist I know him to be). “Currently” came next, followed by “The Medicine,” after which Simons said “why thank you!” to the crowd who applauded him. “Please, give it up for my buddy Mike Annuzzi, and of course to my homie Ryan Cabrera for having me out on this tour…” Next came “Beautiful Pain,” after which Simons had a request of the crowd. “Come closer,” he insisted. “I’m serious! I’m doin’ another intimate song, I wanna see the whites of your eyes! Is that so wrong?” Happily, many of them were obliging and moved closer to the stage.
“Nobody Falls Halfway” was up next, followed by “one I haven’t played in a while, that I wrote with Josh Kelley.” That got a smattering of “woo!”s from the ladies in the crowd who are a) familiar with Simons’ catalog, b) familiar with Josh Kelley’s catalog, or c) both. “Yeah, I know where to say that! Mental note: San Francisco, Josh Kelley!” Simons teased the crowd as he began the sexy “Masterpiece,” breaking into a little of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” in the middle. “Did I hear someone ask for a song?” For those that don’t know, this is one of the best parts about seeing Keaton Simons live: I literally refer to the man as a human jukebox. I personally like to wait till the crowd has cleared after a set, but it’s true that from the stage, too, he’ll play most any song he knows that you request, and they’re always brilliant. I took the opportunity and requested the rare “Broken White Lines,” a favorite in my circle. Next came oldie “Nobody Knows,” and when “Not That Guy” was requested, Simons hung his head. “I’m embarrassed to say I wouldn’t know where to start… I like it like this! I don’t want to make my own decisions any more!” From the crowd, someone teased, “how about in the bedroom?”
“That’s another song,” Simons quipped before beginning “Unstoppable.”
Next came “Lift Me Up” and “Without Your Skin,” after which several women “woo”ed at him. “I don’t have time for all those woos!” Of course, this prompted another “woo” from the audience. Simons made a mocking face, then smiled and returned the “woo.” With a quick plug for his “stocking stuffers” at the merch table, he began a song he wrote with Tyler Hilton, “Inspiration.” As it wrapped up, the crowd sang along with the lyrics. “Do you guys have any idea how happy you just made me? San Fran-tastics!” When he heard a request for “Misfits,” Simons scolded, “you’re cutting it close with ‘Misfits!'” As the set neared its close, Simons said, “alright, you guys. I got one more tune and then we’re bringing out the amazing Ryan Cabrera.” The song was the fantastic “Mama Song,” featuring his talent for throat-singing. “Is it alright if I do one more?” With permission from the venue, we were treated to Shawn Colvin’s version of The Band’s “Twilight,” which was wonderful, and a perfect ending to a treat of a set.
When Ryan Cabrera took the stage a little while later, my friends and I couldn’t decide if he was trying to channel Mayim Bialik’s beloved Blossom with his hat, or Dumb and Dumber‘s Harry with his hair. (In retrospect, he could also be nearly pulling off Animal from The Muppets, but I digress.) Regardless of how I personally felt, clearly there were several girls in the room who’d been eagerly awaiting Cabrera’s return to our fair city. He thanked the crowd for coming out, especially on a Wednesday. “It goes to show, San Francisco knows how to party, and I love that about you!” In honor of Keaton Simons’ choices, Cabrera followed suit, singing a song he wrote with Josh Kelley that he said he doesn’t normally play, “Tell it Like it Is.” When it had concluded, he explained that this was only his second or third time playing in San Francisco, and that he hadn’t been here “since eight or nine years ago,” but that it was “one of his favorite cities.” He also complained about “some fucking convention in town,” saying that he “couldn’t get a room in any hotel.” He inquired as to whether anyone was up for a house party, saying he just needed “a pool and booze.” Eventually, he sang “Exit to Exit,” which made me wonder: is there really any other way to drive on a freeway than “from exit to exit?”
After a tired Justin Timberlake beatbox impression that embarrassed me a little (for Cabrera’s sake, I mean) came a traumatic little cover snippet of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” After Cabrera confessed that he’d “been sick” and hadn’t “had anything to drink in a few days… or years in San Francisco!” someone offered to buy him a drink. “What are you drinking?”
“Don’t care,” Cabrera shot back. By what I believe to be pure coincidence, it was around this point in his set that I began to find myself struggling to pay attention. If he had a setlist, it fell apart. He said something about the next song being about “not having to try too hard,” and something about how it had stemmed from “a friend trying to hump girls in the clubs,” and then somehow we ended up listening to him cover a little of Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man.” Mind you, he’d only just started drinking, so the disjointed setlist (or lack thereof) couldn’t be blamed on tipsiness.
“It’s crazy how some of you know the words to my new songs! That’s how you know it’s catchy!” Cabrera said by way of thanks to the dedicated fans who sang along to anything he chose to play. “I wasn’t gonna play this one either… If I fuck up the words, you know why, but somebody requested it.” I believe it was “Echo Park” from his 2004 album, but I was trying so hard not to just leave to get his whiny voice out of my ears, I may not have registered the names of the songs correctly. At any rate it was awful, and I made note of the multiple times in the song he sang about “Necco Park.” (Does the candy manufacturer have a theme park like Hershey?) Next came “True,” and I think my ears began to bleed. How did this guy ever get a record deal, much less the chance to make multiple albums and tour all these years later? That song featured what I found to be a wretched harmony, though Keaton Simons assured me later, the guy backing Cabrera up can actually sing, and well.
Ryan Cabrera doesn’t know most of his old songs. This is tricky when fans are requesting them. Mostly, that’s because they’re all old…the kid hasn’t put out anything new in six years! This was the case with the next request, and the girl who requested it was simply too shy to sing a little of it for him to jog his memory as to “how it goes.” It wasn’t “gonna end well,” he predicted. “Nailed it. Nailed it!” Next was “Forty Kinds of Sadness,” which I was indeed beginning to feel. I almost never leave a show early, but realistically I’d never been under the impression that I was there for Mr. Cabrera or might really enjoy his set. Somewhere around this point in my evening, I sent a quick email to one of my editors, asking how I should handle the situation: should I leave and just review Annuzzi and Simons? Or should I stick it out and say how I really felt? Honesty is good, was the response. Ultimately, I ended up voting for “both.”
Around the time Cabrera said something about “two bottles of James” and began looking for a woman named Shelby in the crowd (who was apparently the birthday girl), I prepared to leave. “Wait, have you had your twenty-seven birthday shots yet? Do you guys do that here in America?” The last thing I remember is thinking, “to each her own.” Several girls I know were enjoying Ryan Cabrera and themselves that evening; I just could never be one of them. While I could get past the silly hair and affinity for ill-fitting hats, I can’t forgive an artist who doesn’t take shows seriously enough to show up prepared. Furthermore, I definitely could never get on board with such a whiny-voiced, sappy artist without much talent. The night was nearly a failure. Happily, however, friends and I celebrated the best part of the evening, choosing to end on a positive note: as Cabrera led the room in a round of “Happy Birthday” to Shelby, followed somehow his butchering by a singalong version of Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” we snuck off just down the block. Our night concluded happily with Keaton Simons, eating still-warm chocolate buttermilk bars at Bob’s Donuts, far from that terrible noise. And at the end of the day, I’d do it all over again just to see Simons play. That’ll always be true.