Throwback Shaw has got them covered

The Baltimore Sun

I remember standing in the sun - sipping my overpriced, overly sweetened lemonade - and thinking, "I want to like him, but I just don't know."

Ryan Shaw was on the main stage during last year's Artscape, singing his heart out to a largely indifferent crowd. Granted, it was early in the afternoon and most were probably waiting for the fiery reggae of Burning Spear, the evening's headliner.

But the Georgia soul singer with the blond-tipped dreadlocks managed to engage the mostly white, middle-age folks near the front of the stage. They danced to Shaw's rehashed Stax soul swingers and warmly received his gospel-steeped ballads. The singer's rangy voice - rich with shades of Sam Cooke - was glorious.

Still, I wasn't completely sold.

Then it hit me later: Shaw, 27, deserves more than the lame retro act. But he and his handlers are pushing it anyway. A year after the release of his promising debut, This Is Ryan Shaw, the performer has steadily gained momentum wailing covers by soul greats who died or slipped into obscurity long before his birth Christmas Day 1980.

Anchored in the R&B; sounds of the late '50s and early '60s, Shaw's music makes few concessions to modern soul - no programmed instrumentation and certainly no hip-hop influences. On Saturday, he headlines Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.

"People have been looking for optional music," Shaw says from his Brooklyn, N.Y., home. "Everything is so hip-hop infiltrated. People are hungry to hear something real [with] real musicians. It can't be created by machines."

But I wonder whether gifted vocalists like Shaw, who honed his skills in the Southern black church like so many soul singers before him, are best served by resurrecting dusty styles. He's not alone. Young white performers such as Joss Stone, Marc Broussard and most notably multi-Grammy winner Amy Winehouse have garnered critical kudos and strong sales by Xeroxing classic jazz and R&B.;

But it's interesting that Shaw, Ricky Fante and Robert Randolph - young black artists who also mine vintage soul sounds - don't receive nearly as much mainstream attention.

"It's all marketing," Shaw says. "The Caucasian audience has NPR and stations that play the type of music I do. It's difficult to find the black venues or radio stations that will play a diversity of music. It's about finding ways to get to black people."

Local stations such as WTMD have been supportive of Shaw. And his debut - initially released and scantly promoted early last year by Columbia Records before Razor & Tie reissued the CD in late 2007 - received mostly glowing reviews. But his unabashed retro approach bored me.

It seems unfair, and in a sense lazy, for him to dredge up songs such as Wilson Pickett's "I Found a Love" and Bobby Womack's "Lookin' For a Love." The singer adds no new dimension to these evergreens, which are strongly linked to the original artists. So what you get from Shaw amounts to well-sung soul karaoke.

The young artist should have done his homework on the giants he covers. By the time Pickett and Womack were Shaw's age, they had synthesized their influences into a dynamic original sound. They trusted their instincts. And when they didn't write their own tunes, they completely reimagined the works of others.

Shaw may be a charming throwback. Even the original songs on his debut sound like forgotten '60s singles. But I wonder in an age when music is incredibly disposable whether he will be given the time to find his groove.

A marvelous voice like Shaw's should be couched in songs and arrangements echoing more of his personality. Listening to his debut, I didn't feel like I knew him at all. And given his guardedness on the phone, the performer still may be trying to find himself.

"We have some real cool concepts for the new album," Shaw says. There's no release date yet for his sophomore effort. "But it won't be as many covers."

Next time, it would nice to hear more of the real Ryan Shaw - whoever he is.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

See Ryan Shaw at Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St. in Annapolis, at 10 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $20. Information: Call 410-268-4545 or go to ramsheadtavern.com.

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