Tom Odell trades ballads for rock fantasies at Social Hall

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Tom Odell doesn’t look like a rocker. He looks like a hip, bluesy sweetheart (or maybe a sweet, bluesy hipster). The cover art for his first, U.K. chart-topping album is a shot of a blurred cobblestone street and nonchalant monochromatic fashion; the second album cover is a close up of his dreamy blue eyes and carefully tousled blond hair, covered with ribbony red cursive. But when he played at Social Hall last Monday, Odell swapped a lot of his image as a young, soulful heartthrob for drums and volume.

Odell began his set with a plastic cup of whiskey, a singular orange spotlight and the explicitly jazzy piano solo opening of “Still Getting Used to Being On My Own” from his newest album, Wrong Crowd. It wasn’t flashy or overproduced, and the large audience squeezed closer together toward the stage. The song exploded rather abruptly with the chorus of “People call me crazy … ” and a fit of red and orange lights and crashing cymbals.

From the close of that song onward, the sound of Odell’s set became homogenous. The songs frequently began with a quiet, melodic piano solo and Odell’s haunting, lyrical voice — reminiscent of a faster-paced, Tony Bennett ballad — until the band kicked in at full volume for the second go-around of the chorus, redefining the songs somewhat unwittingly as indie rock. It was up to a coin toss whether Odell chose to end the song there or revert it back to his opening pace and volume.

This was a big shift from the format of the songs on Odell’s albums. There’s a magic to Odell combining his vulnerable love lyrics with varied musical genres, especially in his most recent album. There’s a layered, Kodaline-esque falsetto harmony and a funky drum beat in “Sparrow.” “Silhouette” features a strained, pining set of lyrics with a near-disco pop melody.

But live, Odelle eliminated that variety of unique musical profiles. The songs were modified from their original studio versions to fit into a patterned repetition that may have seemed better for a concert but really had the effect of impairing Odell’s artistry and overwhelming the audience.

There were songs that worked well in their revised settings: “Here I Am” and “I Know” were powerful and he owned them that way, “Hold Me” balanced the volume and the attention to his vocals better than probably any of the others, and “Another Love” was genuinely sung and universally loved and recorded. But beyond those few, the songs indicated an intention to pretend to be somebody he really wasn’t.

The best moments of the concert were where Odell didn’t try to be a rockstar. Until the middle of the set, Odell’s banter with the crowd was minimal. But after finishing “Heal,” he stood up from the piano and engaged in his first real conversation with the audience.

“We get emails sometimes — now seemed like a good time to respond to one,” he said. He’d received one from a girl and her mom who had come all the way from New Zealand and had requested that he play “Mystery,” a lilting jazz song that he chose not to amp up with his band. It was beautiful, because it was something genuine.

Later, Odell leaned down to talk to a little boy with earplugs and a camera in the very front row while his band was re-tuning. It was little minutes like these — where Odell was effortlessly charming — that reminded the audience that he was still a soft, love-obsessed guy with English swagger and manners. Odell is charismatic enough on his own; his concert came off like a bad date.

Contact Olivia Jerram at [email protected].