The crowd at Napoleon’s Lounge hoots and hollers when Taylor Hicks reaches for his harmonica. He holds the little silver instrument on top of his microphone and cups his right hand over his left. When he begins to play, the audience cheers louder, and their shouts and applause follow the ups and downs of the melody Hicks invents.
He eggs his fans on, giving them more to shout about as he wails on the harmonica, leaning into the sound and bending down onto his knee as he blazes through the solo.
A lot of people in the crowd came to see Hicks because they liked his singing voice and the stage presence he mastered on “American Idol,” when he wasn’t allowed to use an instrument. They weren’t expecting Hicks the multi-instrumentalist, and they thrill to see him put his remarkable energy and talent into forms of music that they’ve never seen him perform.
The only thing that tops the crowd’s excitement when Hicks plays harmonica is the childlike delight they exhibit when he shows off his silly stage trick. In the middle of a vocal solo or at the end of a chorus, he rears back on his heels, raises his eyebrows and throws out jazz hands, with a little “Hey!” The audience laughs and laughs.
Hicks chuckles too and tells the audience that the trick works every time. The band is still playing. He glances around and then tosses out another “Hey!” just to test the assertion. The crowd laughs again — and cheers and whistles and roots for more.
It’s not totally clear why Hicks’ performance is so magnetic. He and his four-man backing band are cramped onto a tiny stage along with an old guitar amp and Hicks’ wood-framed organ. An electronic keyboard is stacked on top of the baby grand piano that occupies most of the space — the one that the very skilled Brian Less shares with the dueling pianists that have made Napoleon’s famous.
If you didn’t know Hicks (and you didn’t have to buy a ticket to get into Napoleon’s during his show), you might stumble upon the bar thinking the group was any old lounge act. There are no giant TV screens and no special effects. There isn’t even a curtain to draw to reveal the star of the show. But you’d quickly learn that the humble venue is home to something big.
Apart from being a prodigious talent, Hicks is an extraordinary performer. When he was a kid, he studied the visual aspects of artists’ shows. He knew he wanted to be a performer.
“But little did I know that the study of the visual presentation of those artists would ultimately lead to my break,” he said.
Hicks estimated that success on “American Idol” is 40 percent about the music and 60 percent about the visual performance.
When Hicks plays this tiny stage, every audience member can see every gesture he makes — but he said that the venue allows him to focus more on sound than he could before.
He calls Napoleon’s his “living room.”
“I love it because it’s a great way to work on new music,” he said. “And you’re really not stretching to try to entertain people in the back of an arena or a thousand-seat theater.”
The night I saw him play, Hicks said hello to some friends who had slipped in at the back of the house, and he threw together an extra-long set to serenade them, including a tune he said he had never played with the band before.
That spirit of spontaneity speaks of Hicks’ experience, his comfort on stage and the instant rapport he forms with the audience. He said that after years of performing live (he said his gray hair helped him get into clubs to play music at age 16 or 17), putting on a show is like second nature.
Maybe because he’s so much himself on stage, Hicks doesn’t “turn on” for a performance.
Even when he was playing Teen Angel in “Grease” on Broadway in 2008 and on the national tour in 2009, he seamlessly shifted from regular guy to stage performer.
During part of the show, he would be suspended 40 feet above the stage inside a giant ice cream cone for 15 minutes before he descended and started acting and singing.
“I actually started taking my cell phone into the ice cream cone,” he said. “I would call all my family and my friends just to pass the time.”
His friends and family called those “cone calls.”
In his blue jeans and cowboy shirt, Hicks is just as honest and organic on stage as he is one-on-one. He trades ideas and licks with keyboardist Less and guitarist Cody Ferris, who both, along with bassist Jason Parker, came from Hicks’ native Alabama to play with him. Drummer Eric Shauer seems like part of the family too. The five lob musical themes around in country and rock tunes, ballads and upbeat standards like they’re tossing a football around their backyard.
Hicks said the only gigs he formally prepares for are those where he sings the national anthem. A strong patriotic strain comes through in the rendition of the Bill Gentry tear-jerker “Nineteen” that Hicks plays and in the salute to American troops he offers as an introduction.
His allegiance to his musical roots shows as well, as he dabbles in jazz, funk, rock and blues.
The night I watched, Hicks sang the version of Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” that he performed during Elvis Week on “Idol” and he, Less and Ferris made an improvisational playground of a funky version of The Isley Brothers’ “Love the One You’re With.”
His own “Maybe You Should” pulled on all the heartstrings that fans forgot could hurt since Hicks sang “Do I Make You Proud” on “American Idol.”
By the end of the night, Hicks’ infectious friendliness and the show’s rip-roaring energy spills out into the Paris Las Vegas corridors. It’s no surprise that Hicks is looking to step up to a bigger venue.
“I want to start small and intimate and then grow organically,” he said. “And I think that’s what’s happening.”
After the show, Hicks’ fans line up to shake his hand and have him autograph copies of his 2009 CD, “The Distance.” He’s working on a new soulful country album that he hopes to release soon.
His music playing through my headphones has me dancing in my seat right now, so I’ll bet the new album will be a hit. But my recommendation is to get in to see Taylor Hicks live while the gettin’s good.
Artists playing original music are a rare find on the Las Vegas Strip, and the chance to see a performance with as much electricity as Hicks’ is not to be missed — especially while he’s playing a room where you can feel the buzz of every volt.