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Hicks has charm but needs polish

The Baltimore Sun

Long before American Idol, Taylor Hicks had tried to be a star, doggedly working the Southern bar circuit and releasing two independent albums that only a handful of people heard. But it took a win last year on the insanely popular talent show to give his flagging singing career a huge boost.

His victory on the fifth season of Idol has earned the prematurely gray Alabama native a major-label contract and a devout following, famously dubbed the "Soul Patrol." But on his national tour, which stopped Tuesday night at Rams Head Live!, Hicks still came off as the amateurish but mostly charming guy who's trying to make it as a singer. Never mind that he has been performing (albeit semiprofessionally) for more than a decade, went through "polishing" on Idol and now has a platinum album.

Listening to his well-produced, self-titled debut, Hicks' love of classic soul is obvious. Even before he hit the stage, the bell-clear in-house system blared such soul gems as "Engine Number 9" by Wilson Pickett and "Soul Finger" by the Bar-Kays. But throughout the show, sold out to a mostly boomer audience, Hicks awkwardly tried to replicate the nuances of the music.

Looking noticeably slimmer (the performer has lost more than 20 pounds since his stint on Idol), Hicks opened with an obvious choice: "Soul Thing," a tribute to the genre and a highlight from his self-titled debut on Arista Records. Throughout the hour-and-a-half-long show, Hicks' band regularly folded in snippets of soul classics such as Otis Redding's "Sad Song" or Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." Hicks crooned a few lines of the latter to the delight of screaming female fans.

His celebration of classic soul is all good. But as a vocalist, Hicks is still only passable. His style is riddled with cliches - an affected growl, a strategically placed shout. With such an approach, he was able to believably sell the soul-lite cuts from his debut, including "The Runaround" and "The Deal." But when he attempted Les McCann's "Compared to What," a classic from the black-power era, Hicks bombed. He was well out of his range as he glossed over the song's incendiary lyrics of political angst, turning the number into a rote exercise in soul vocalizing.

But he quickly slipped back into the more suitable musical territory of his debut, breezing through energetic versions of "Heaven Knows," which nicely samples "What'd I Say" by Ray Charles, Hicks' musical hero. (Presumably for inspiration, a Ray Charles doll was prominently placed atop an amplifier.)

Hicks doesn't seem to "own the stage" the way a seasoned, or incredibly gifted, performer does. For most of the show, he often seemed content to blend in with his propulsive seven-piece band, forgoing singing to shake a tambourine or strike a cowbell to the beat.

But the packed house didn't seem to mind as folks danced and laughed. Occasionally between songs, two tipsy women at the bar screamed, "Tay-lor! We love you!" After a while, the medium-sized, standing-room venue felt like a friendly, get-on-down-and-boogie dive. And Hicks' faceless, karaoke-style take on classic soul provided the perfect backdrop.

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