Drake Bell struggles but finds a way at Relay For Life Music Fest

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Nishali Naik/Staff

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If someone said Drake Bell’s performance in Pauley Ballroom was an open mic, a member of the crowd might believe them — not for an amateur level of skill, but for a casualness and spontaneity that you would be hard-pressed to find in any other artist with his years of experience.

Performing at the Relay For Life Music Fest on Sunday, Bell brought a range of different songs — old and new, rock and pop — and played nearly all of them on a simple acoustic guitar.

He sauntered on stage in a simple white T-shirt and jeans, the picture of understated, effortless cool. After a quick and almost familiar greeting, he moved straight into his songs without any further introduction — surprisingly quiet and mellow for the headliner of a show.

But that was more or less the theme of Bell’s performance: familiar, nonchalant and a little bit spontaneous. While there was some structure to the flow of his performance, for the most part Bell appeared to be making up the setlist as he went, pausing between songs to think out loud, “Hm, what should I play next?”

Bell began with some of his older music — songs that felt vaguely recognizable, though for the most part not distinct enough for the crowd to sing along. But even during his less familiar tracks, the relatively small crowd continued to look up at him with a giddy delight, fully enjoying the close proximity between them and the star they remember from the “Drake and Josh” episodes of their youth.

Although perhaps too few people for the spaciousness of Pauley Ballroom, Sunday’s modest crowd allowed for more intimate connection with the artist — Bell could almost make eye contact with individual fans, rather than huge swaths of people, creating a cozy and personal atmosphere throughout the show.

As he transitioned to songs from his recently released EP, Honest, Bell put down his guitar and sang to a backtrack. While at first a little strange to see him guitarless and singing pop songs — quite a shift in tone from the songs he began the show with — the change brought a great deal of energy to the eager crowd, buying into his new, more upbeat sound.

These newer songs required quite a bit more vocal range from Bell — featuring notes that at times seemed just slightly out of reach. The intention was there, though, and the crowd still seemed willing to award him an A for effort.

A few times, Bell began playing a song and then stopped, admitting that he’d forgotten the rest. In these moments of comical awkwardness, the crowd was reminded that Bell was returning from a bit of a musical respite — still getting back into the groove of things.

One of these moments in particular, after Bell stopped short, he simply launched into a seamless cover of “Black Bird,” by the Beatles, whom Bell cites as one of his main musical influences. His performance of the song, in contrast to his struggle to remember some of his own tunes, was effortless, a melody that fit like a glove. Even though he faltered, he got back on track by returning to what he knows.

In a somewhat expected but entirely welcome finale, Bell ended his set with “Found a Way,” the treasured theme song from “Drake and Josh.” This could not have been a more appropriate ending, and it was quite literally the moment the crowd had all been waiting for. They cheered and sang along, holding phones in the air in an effort to capture this piece of their childhood replaying live, right before their eyes.

Although the crowd still cheered loudest for this classic, the simple, unplanned structure of his performance let his fans know that he’s just beginning, testing out something new. And while this probably did not mark the most lively Drake Bell concert in history, you could tell that he’s still shaking off the rust. As Bell reminds us — “it’s gonna take some time to realign.” Take all the time you need, Drake.

Contact Julia Bertolero at [email protected].

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