“Let’s get this out of the way,” Taylor Hicks calmly told the capacity crowd Monday night (April 29, 2013) at Napoleon’s Lounge (an intimate venue in the Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino), “Thanks for voting for me.” Hicks was, of course, referencing his 2006 victory on the television phenomenon American Idol. If it sounded somewhat obligatory, it was likely because he has spent the last seven years proving his legitimacy as an artist despite a mainstream press quick to write him off as a fluke.
Since summer of 2012, Hicks has made the Las Vegas strip his home, first during a residency at Bally’s and now at Paris. “Welcome to my living room,” he said early on during his high-intensity set. For years, Hicks was unfairly treated as a symbol of the sometimes fleeting fame Idol provides its winners. If the standard for post-Idol stardom is represented by Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, Hicks was typically placed at the opposite end of that spectrum. For those willing to take a closer look, Hicks’ old school charm—so deftly displayed for millions of TV viewers—was only one aspect of his ability as a musician and performer.
That’s what’s so great about his five-nights-a-week schedule in Vegas. It shines a spotlight on his entire musical persona, inviting visitors from around the world to witness it firsthand. Regardless of what one thinks of American Idol in general, Hicks’ performances stand on their own. The literal closeness between performer and audience at Napoleon’s allows for direct interaction (at one point, a female fan passed Hicks a napkin, with which he dabbed his sweaty brow). While a few Idol anecdotes were shared (preceding groove-oriented renditions of “In the Ghetto” and “Taking It to the Streets”), for the most part the performance bore little resemblance to the garishly commercial TV juggernaut. Between his signature harmonica solos, able rhythm guitar work, and startlingly aggressive organ comping (during a cover of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together”), Hicks’ chops are simply undeniable.
Always front and center, however, are his vocals. Whether displaying understated restraint (the original “The Deal”) or full-throated power (the Jamie McLean Band’s “Country Living”), Hicks’ voice is a remarkably versatile instrument. His tribute to the United States Armed Forces, “Nineteen” (from his 2009 album The Distance), was recognized with a standing ovation. “Seven Mile Breakdown” included a bit of The Beatles’ “Get Back.” Though he mentioned a forthcoming “soulful country” album, much of the set drew from covers that have been staples of his set for years, including Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” and Delbert McClinton’s “Going Back to Louisiana.”
No matter how many times he may have played some of these songs, Hicks approaches them with as much enthusiastic energy as ever. Special mention must be made of his band, especially longtime keyboardist Brian Less, featured numerous times. Exciting and fun from start to finish, Taylor Hicks and his band offer an evening of sweaty, soulful, classic rhythm and blues. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Vegas residency might be at least as sweet a triumph for Hicks as the Idol experience, for it has allowed him to confidently step out from the long shadow cast by years of unjustly negative press that followed his win. Hicks is currently booked through November (with a detour to Harrah’s Reno in July and Harrah’s Laughlin in August). For more information, visit the official Paris Las Vegas site.