Tyler Hilton rarely gets himself to Northern California. I know, because every time he does, I’m there with bells on. I first met Tyler nearly a decade ago, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, of all places. Some friends and I had driven (!!) from LA to see a band we love play their hometown for back-to-back nights, and the night before the first show, Hilton (and touring buddy Curtis Peoples) was playing the little coffee shop venue next door. The poster showed a handsome guy who resembled Elvis, but sneaking in to check him out would mean losing our spot in line. Instead, we chatted the boys up when they arrived for soundcheck, and after their set, they came out with their guitars to play us a song or two. Nine years later, Curt and I are still friends, and I still have a crush on Tyler Hilton, owing in equal parts to his wonderful, raspy voice, and yes, his good looks. He never remembers me, but that’s okay: as long as I can hear him sing once in a while, I don’t need much more than that. So add him to a bill with singer/songwriter Howie Day (whose huge 2004 hit “Collide” has been an earworm for just about everyone on the planet at one time or another) and NYC’s Anna Rose,and I wouldn’t miss it. Early this week (Tuesday at Yoshi’s in Oakland), that’s exactly what I schlepped out to the East Bay to see.
After filling our bellies with sushi rolls washed down by Domaine Chandon, my bestie Cassondra and I settled into our table not far from the stage. Anna Rose began shortly around 7:40, so it’s a good thing we didn’t show up right at eight expecting not to have missed anything. “How’s it going? Are you having fun?” Rose asked. When someone gave her a paltry “woo!” in response, she smiled and said, “me too. We have that in common!” After her first song, Rose explained that she was happy to be there, that it was her first time both at Yoshi’s and in Oakland itself. “I’m from New York,” she went on. “I’m used to playing for two or three faces. I’m happy not to have that ‘get off the stage, blondie!’ stuff tonight!” After a second song, Rose had to “cool my jets for a second.” She continued, saying that she gets “really excited” about playing a “big rock show for you” and then remembers, “oh, I gotta do the ballads. They’re good, I promise,” she added. “I just gotta slow it down for a sec.” After asking the crowd for a little appreciation for accompanying guitarist Adam, she sang “Beautiful World,” followed by “Shoot All the Lights.”
“All the songs I’m doing tonight are from my new album, Behold a Pale Horse, which I’ll be selling here tonight,” Rose explained, saying she had a “couple more for you.” After thanking Tyler Hilton and Howie Day for having her on the tour, she paused to ask, “how excited are you for them? I think they’re in the building… let ’em hear you!” Guitarist Adam interrupted to ask if she had an album fans could buy. “I already said that part…” Rose promised, looking equal parts confused and amused. She went on to explain how they often have a little banter where he sets up the opportunity for her to plug her album, though she’d already done it that evening and he’d missed it. “Men!” Rose joked, feigning exasperation. “Oops. My ‘angry man’ song is next. I swear I like dudes.” The song was “Because You’re Mine,” and at its conclusion, Rose thanked the audience again, bade us a great night, and closed with “Los Angeles.”
When Tyler Hilton took to the stage a little while later, the first thing he said was, “I like the dinner vibe! It feels like we’re doin’ something for Comedy Central!” His first song, “Jenny,” made me smile, because I felt as though he was too timid to put much weight behind his own lyrics: the first time or two that he sang “love is not some fuckin’ movie,” I thought he was rushing through his f-bombs, as though he was worried he’d get in trouble for cursing. Then again, perhaps that was just in my head. Dylan-penned tune “It Ain’t Me Babe” (made famous most arguably by Johnny Cash) came next, after which Hilton made mention of his accompanist, “my friend John. Say ‘what up, John.'” The next song sounded deceptively like Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” in its intro, but turned out to be “Ain’t No Fooling Me.”
“I haven’t been up this way in so long,” Hilton confessed. “It’s so fun.” He went on to explain that he “used to live up here, when I was a kid,” asking, “any of my friends come, from that time? No?” A beat, and then, “that’s probably why I left.” Hilton donned his harmonica for the bluesy, bittersweet “Can’t Stop Now,” after which he said he had “one I’ma try to do for you guys.” The song was written on piano, and is on his last EP, but during his “VIP hang,” someone had requested it. “So if it’s terrible, it’s their fault!” He added a brief explanation about his days on Warner Bros, saying that his songs kept “getting behind someone dancing with a microphone attached to their cheek,” and that eventually he’d left WB, losing all of his songs in the process. The next ten songs he wrote, he said, he put out as an EP, Forget the Storm. He continued with the explanation that he’d written the song about a bitch; she’d been with someone she shouldn’t have been with… it was “Leave Him,” and it was lovely, even if she turned out not to be.
After thanking the crowd for their attention, Hilton did something I hadn’t had the guts to really hope for, and incidentally made my night: he performed his raspy, smoky, wonderful version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and it was all I wanted it to be. The end. “Well… John, you wanna come out?” Hilton requested. “They’ve been waiting for you! You know, this Christmas I’ve been on the road a lot. I’m that guy that’ll get a tree the day after Thanksgiving and keep it up till, like, the fifteenth of January…” Hilton went on to insist that he was “happy to be able to sing this time of year,” whether Christmas songs or not. “That sounded a lot sadder than I meant it to, like something out of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…” He chided himself. This is one of the best things about catching Hilton live. I literally have a recording of him from God-knows-when-or-where, and he’s telling some story, and he laments himself for not having a “reset switch,” saying, “I just go!” And he does. Sometimes he’s more chatty than others, and sometimes he’ll manage not to say anything he finds embarrassing (or should), but no matter what, he’s always entertaining, and not just because I think he’s a great songwriter with a phenomenal voice. His next song was my personal favorite, “You’ll Ask for Me,” of which I never tire.
“So, the other cool thing about this Christmas is, I’m in my first Christmas movie! I always wanted to be in either a ninja movie, or a Christmas movie,” Hilton confessed, adding that the movie, Christmas on the Bayou, could be found on Lifetime, so it was “not a new story.” After talk of co-star Hilarie Burton send him on a quick tangent about his time on One Tree Hill, (“if you haven’t seen it, I’m basically the star of the show… it’s about basketball…and people cheating on each other. No.”) Hilton insisted that anyone interested in his movie could “TiVo it,” but adding, “it’s Lifetime. If you miss it, it’ll be on a hundred more times…” While he was down in the bayou for the film, he recorded a new zydeco song, “One Foot in the Bayou,” which came next. “Give it up for Anna who opened the show tonight! You guys are in for a real treat with Howie Day…” After promising he’d be “out by the CDs” after the show and asking fans to come say hello, Hilton had one more song. He gave his “punctual, kick-ass drummer John” one more shout-out, teasing him, “there’s nothing rock and roll about being punctual…” Last song “Loaded Gun” closed his set, and with one last, “thank you guys so much, I’m Tyler Hilton,” he was gone.
When Howie Day appeared on-stage with his cellist, Ward Williams, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I know of maybe three of his songs, but they were certainly songs I would be happy to experience live. “Thanks for comin’ out on a Tuesday!” Day greeted the crowd, opening with a song called “Bunnies.” He was not at all what I was expecting, which I suppose was standard singer/songwriter/acoustic musician fare. Instead, I was treated to an interesting mix of loops, which gave him a little bit of an edge. Right away I noted “rad” in my iPhone before the song had even ended. “That’s an old song called ‘Bunnies,'” Day explained. “It started off as a working title, so there’s no deep meaning there…” Then he lowered his voice to an almost inaudible whisper to say, “not really.” Next came “She Says,” during which Cassondra and I confirmed our belief that his pretty, gritty tone has a distinctly Bono-esque quality to it. (Hint: this is a good thing.) “No Longer What You Require” came next, and was sad but beautiful. “Thank you,” Day said graciously. “That’s the one I usually try to get people all riled up with. It worked, obviously!”
After “Be There,” Day again teased the crowd, saying we were “unruly,” and pausing to ask for another round of applause for his tour guests. “I’m gonna be adventurous,” Day decided, treating the audience to a new song called “Favorite Song.” Incidentally, it was one of my favorites of his set, too. Day’s set is exceptionally percussive, given that it appears to be acoustic, or just a two-man band (himself and Williams). It’s a really interesting thing he’s got going on, and it worked well. “Everyone Loves to Live a Lie” came next, after which Day paused to give his cellist a bit of attention, saying, “that was funky! That was a hoedown!” He noted the pictures of jazz musicians all over the walls, joking that they had beckoned, “come in…” The next song was called “Medicine Ball,” and Day insisted, “it’s also a drink at Coffee Bean. I don’t know… I’m trying to get free coffee.” When it had concluded, Day thanked the crowd for their applause: “thanks. I don’t know if you’re clapping for the song, or for Coffee Bean, so thanks for coming tonight. I didn’t know so many people would come out on a Tuesday night. This is my first time playing here.” Next came a song whose title I sadly misheard on the first chorus: it’s called “Forty Hours and Counting,” but I heard “forty hours in county,” and obviously that’s a whole other thing! When it was over, Day ducked backstage to give Ward Williams a solo moment.
When he reappeared, Day said, “ladies and gentlemen, Ward Williams!” Immediately, Williams returned the favor to the headliner: “and ladies and gentlemen, Howie Day!” Next began a tune that reminded me a little of Sting, then featured a great cover bit of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” and eventually became Day’s own song “Disco,” with pretty loops (both vocal and instrumental), followed by megahit “Collide.” During “Sunday Morning,” I couldn’t help but marvel at how finished and full this sound was on-stage: as though it was being played on the record, polished and perfected from the studio, even though it was happening (loops, instruments, vocals, and all) in front of me. It’s really interesting to behold, and not quite like anything I’ve seen before. “Thank you guys so much for coming out tonight,” Day said again. “I hope you’ve had a good time!” After asking everyone to give Anna Rose and Tyler Hilton another round of applause, followed by one more for Williams on the cello, he switched guitars for the next song. “Oh yeah, plug it in. That’s important!” Up next was “Ghost,” for which the crowd absolutely went nuts, applauding wildly at its close. It was the last song of Day’s regular set, but he only left the stage for a brief moment before returning for the encore. (Even so, half the front row emptied. Do people still not know how shows work these days?)
Day returned to a much more stripped-down, acoustic sound for “Brace Yourself,” after which he again thanked the crowd. “Get home safe,” he added. “You guys have been a fantastic audience.” His last song was “Madrigrals,” and when he’d finished, Day waved, saying, “thank you very much, you guys have a nice night. ‘Preciate it.”
Before heading out to the car, I said a quick hello to Tyler Hilton, and noticed that among other little treasures, he was selling posters. I did a double-take, because I honestly thought it might be the very same picture I’d seen on that poster so long ago in Tulsa. It wasn’t, but it prompted me to tell him that he’s damn near ageless. I wasn’t trying to kiss his ass, it’s just true: if it weren’t for the recent addition of a little scruff (and obvious changes in hairstyles), I might not really be able to tell the difference between a picture of Tyler in 2004 and one I took that night. Anyway, he seemed pretty excited to hear it, saying, “you’re the greatest!” with a huge grin.
So, truth be told, I’d have gone to just about anyone’s show to hear this man play. Not only do I love what he writes, and the gorgeous tone of his voice, but I’ve paid attention to his tour patterns for long enough to know that opportunities like this one don’t come around as often as I’d like, and certainly not near often enough. Add lovely Anna Rose and the fascinating semi-acoustic spectacle that is Howie Day, and even the hint of a possibility that there’ll be a Christmas tune, and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. Here’s hoping that the next chance I have won’t be as far off as was the last one. And in the meantime, I’ll be reliving that sweet Christmas carol in my memory, and that’ll have to do.