Review / photos: Shawn Mullins strums a few lullabies at the Don CeSar Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach
Against a curtain of sea grapes, folk rocker Shawn Mullins ’s music flowed through an intimate crowd Saturday night at the Sunsets Pavilion at the Loews Don CeSar in St. Pete Beach, past the palm trees and over the sea oats right out into the Gulf of Mexico. How appropriate, then, that his first song was named after the body of water that served as a backdrop for his show.
“I wrote this on the line of Florida and Alabama in the Flori-Bama bar parking lot 14 years ago,” Mullins said before launching into his first number with his lead guitarist Patrick Blanchard.
She thinks she might have loved him once but that was long ago / and the rain pours down like a holy waterfall over the Gulf of Mexico.
Most people know Shawn Mullins for the ubiquitous 1998 hit song Lullaby, the one many think is titled Rockabye since that’s the main repeated hooky word in the song.
Everything’s gonna be all right, rockabye, rockabye…
Among those who recognized the song were Matt and Kirsten Kern, who met around the time the song was a hit. On Saturday, they lounged on comfy blue cushions with a view of the Gulf of Mexico, the sky above punctuated by Venus, Orion, and the Big Dipper. On their anniversary vacation from Asheville, N.C., they were catching the free soundwaves that bounced off the pink stucco and over the sand.
Mullins’s music works best when the audience knows more of his work and can sing along to more than the chorus of Lullaby, as is the case when he plays in his native Georgia. Even with a crowd like this one, which was less familiar with his music, his approachable style wins over the fans. In a black T-shirt, worn jeans and boots and friendly smile, he seems like the kind of guy you want to take along on a road trip.
His passionate voice has the warmth and grittiness of a Georgia boy who smokes, which is exactly what he is. In several of his songs, he speaks the lyrics in his low baritone register, then can effortlessly soar up into falsetto on a chorus.
Mullins’s show was one of a few “Live from Loews” concerts planned this year at the Don, where the hotel’s poolside patrons and those parked on beach lounges can reap the benefits of some really good music. Future bills include Jason Reeves and Ellis Paul.
Under the pavilion and in the adjacent courtyard, 200 concert-goers enjoyed their small gathering. General admission fans paid $45, which included two drink tickets to a fully loaded bar. VIP ticketholders paid $85 to mingle with Mullins before the show, munch on meatballs and crab hors d’oeuvres; their ticket price also included four drink tickets.
The aim is to give a seaside intimate concert experience, and it works. Fans sit on white garden chairs set wedding-style — 12 rows back and 12 seats across the aisle down the middle leading to the main event. The superb sound kept them in their seats, while the chattier ones could stand and mingle near the bars around bistro tables. Someone clearly has some experience planning events here.
Singer-songwriters Daniel B. Marshall (Tampa’s own) and Brian Collins (of Atlanta) gave solid opening sets. Marshall’s songs of heartbreak had catchy hooks and smart lyrics. Collins’s songs, such as Good Things, had a Jack Johnson feel-good vibe, pronounced by his Martin Sexton-like soulful vocals.
For Mullins, the geography of his songs moved from the Gulf of Mexico to the west coast. Light You Up and California — both cuts from his California-themed 2010 release Light You Up — both wove their way into the lineup. Mullins’s full strum on acoustic guitar, combined with Blanchard’s textured riffs, created a full sound that made up for the absence of the rest of his band. His storytelling really shines on California, a song about a young couple who meet in an L.A. traffic jam and fall in love with each other and the fast life.
Well, he was from a small town in Northern Mississippi / She was raised on the Puget Sound / A third generation hippie / fate would take them to L.A. County and get them stuck in a traffic jam...
In time their life of glamour turns into a life of cocaine and cutthroat connections that spiral downward.
On Beautiful Wreck, Mullins’s partner Blanchard threw on some half-hearted harmonies on the chorus: At the dark end of this bar/ what a beautiful wreck you are. I wished Brandi Carlile or Dar Williams were singing them, as I’ve seen them back him up on this catchy number before.
As he started Shimmer, two ladies screamed with approval. They were in Sydney for the 2000 summer Olympics (as backup members of the U.S. synchronized swimming team — talk about random). That song was used as part of a promotional campaign for the event. The ladies wagged their hips slowly, remembering their good times in Australia, even as they raised their arms toward the stars on the other side of the world.
You knew the end was near when he started in on his hit Lullaby. The fact that the audience didn’t recognize his biggest hit until the third line is a clear sign that there was either a shortage of true fans or that too many had cashed in on that fourth drink ticket.
“I hope you don’t have to drive anywhere,” said Mullins.
With that, he launched into his last song of the evening, an acoustic but danceable cover of Ode to Billie Joe, also known as Tallahatchie Bridge, a song that had everyone up against the stage dancin’ and a-bumpin’ and a-grindin’.
Hope everyone made it home okay.
— Review/photos by Lara Cerri, tbt*