Allen Stone's beautiful soul

Singer Allen Stone performs Feb. 12 at The 8x10 in South Baltimore.
Singer Allen Stone performs Feb. 12 at The 8x10 in South Baltimore. (Jason Tang, Handout photo)

The temptation to talk about Allen Stone's look — the long, straggly blond hair, his trademark Seattle Supersonics jersey and those chunky reading glasses a great-grandmother might consider out of style — completely disappears once he opens his mouth.

That's because a voice like Stone's warm tenor sounds like a product of a forgotten, pre-Auto-Tune era.

Stone, who is currently opening for Jack's Mannequin but will perform his own headlining set at the 8x10 on Sunday, is one of the most promising and surprising soul singers in years. He's capable of switching between full-throated wails and ice-melting falsetto, all with the type of restraint the great singers possess.

But as a "total sports kid raised in the country," Stone nearly kept his gift hidden because he was worried about being teased.

"In third or fourth grade, I remember going to music class, and for some reason I knew I could sing," said Stone, a minister's son who first sang in church. "But sitting next to my buddies, I faked it. I didn't want to sound good because I didn't want them to make fun of me."

As he grew older, Stone became more confident in his ability. He said he realized he wanted to be a singer at 19, after being "mesmerized" by blues-pop singer Marc Broussard in concert. After a semester of community college, Stone moved to Seattle and never looked back.

He hasn't had much time to. In the past two years, Stone, now 24, has self-released two albums ("Last to Speak" and last year's self-titled effort) to critical acclaim. Even the country's most prominent critics couldn't help tossing Stone's name around with Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Stone's first singer-hero, Stevie Wonder. ("It's kind of stupid, huh?" he said of the comparisons.)

Plenty of people are buying into Stone's talent, including Conan O'Brien, who was "blown away" by Stone's performance of "Unaware" on his show last October. It was a vindicating moment, Stone said, because he had earned the right to perform without a major label's "big elbows nudging [show producers] into that spot."

"Unaware," the self-titled album's closing song, was a deft choice to introduce the young singer to a much larger audience. What sounds like a smooth love song in the vein of Robin Thicke soon reveals itself as a biting commentary on our country's sad economic state. ("Papa said, 'Son, it's the land of the free,' as he broke his back trying to make ends meet," Stone sings.) He said he's tired of modern-day soul and R&B's monotony when it comes to topics.

"That's why I'm so hesitant to go to a label," Stone said. "I don't want to hear them say 'We need a love song.' I'm not opposed to writing love songs, but I need to be in love, not because I need to pay your salary, Mr. Executive."

After the "Conan" performance, the label talk predictably picked up.

"I'm slowly approaching the day where I'll go to a label," he said. "You need the big machine behind you at some point."

The key, he said, is building his fan base to the point where he'll have leverage in negotiations, which explains why he's touring with Jack's Mannequin, an act whose fan base doesn't naturally overlap with his.

The deal with a major label will probably come soon, but for now, Stone is concentrating on building his reputation as a live performer.

"I want to be known as somebody who can bring it to life, who isn't faking it in the studio," he said.

But back to that look of his, the aspect many can't resist commenting on. Stone could not care less (which he made clear in a much more colorful way), saying the obsession is unfortunately built into American culture.

"You get [artists] like Britney Spears and Katy Perry, and a lot of their fan bases are built on how they look, and it's extremely sad," Stone said.

Still, he takes the chatter about his looks in stride. It's the music that's gaining the fans, and that's what's most important to him.

"There's no delusion in my spirit about what I look like or who I am," he said. "I know I'm a white hippie kid from Seattle that sings soul music."



If you go

Allen Stone performs Sunday at the 8x10, 10 E. Cross St. Doors open at 7 p.m. $10. Call 410-625-2000 or go to the8x10.com.

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