Concert Review | John Oates 

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A headlining set at Eastman Theatre may not be where jazz fest fans would expect to hear a laid-back, “MTV Unplugged”-style performance — but that’s what the audience got when John Oates and his small backing band took their seats onstage Thursday at the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival.

With deep-cut originals and recognizable covers, the show lived up to its billing as “an evening of songs and stories.” Backed by a trio of musicians playing pedal steel, an electric guitar, a cello and percussion, Oates sang with a deliberate cadence, but proceeded with leisurely pace during the between-song banter, which helped provide context for his decidedly obscure song selection.

click to enlarge LOUIS RESSEL.

The famously mustachioed former half of Hall and Oates didn’t hesitate to acknowledge the prolific partnership that produced some of the ’70s and ‘80s’ most indelible pop hits. But it was telling when, in the middle of the set, Oates joking confessed, “I’ve been doing this a long time; I always give the audience what they want…not now.”

click to enlarge LOUIS RESSEL.
Oates was undeniably charming throughout the concert. His knack for weaving individual melodic threads into a silky smooth sonic tapestry was on full display, even when the set stretched beyond his well-documented rock, soul and classic R&B predilections to include folk and blues influences.

But the singer-songwriter was also cheeky, promising to play “maybe something that’s familiar, if you wait long enough, if you’re musically patient.” No one except the musicians onstage — who provided brilliantly full textures despite the limited instrumentation — knew then that the operative word was 'maybe.'

It’s impossible to say just how much Daryl Hall’s much-publicized lawsuit against Oates over the latter’s attempt to sell his share of their joint business venture Whole Oates Enterprises had an impact, but it couldn’t have made Oates eager to perform too many songs synonymous with their collaboration — among them “Maneater,” Private Eyes,” “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” and “Rich Girl."

click to enlarge LOUIS RESSEL.
Perhaps that’s why Oates and his band spent the majority of the evening playing the songs of everyone from Elvis Presley and John Prine to Smokey Robinson and Curtis Mayfield, along with a generous helping of original country-Americana tunes from Oates’s most recent solo albums “Arkansas” and “Reunion.”

When Oates did play songs he recorded with Hall, they were cuts unlikely to register with a typical festival crowd expecting the duo’s biggest singalong hits. “She’s Gone” and “Had I Known You Better Then” from 1973’s “Abandoned Luncheonette” album; the 1984 ditty “Out of Touch” from “Big Bam Boom”; and “Promise Ain’t Enough” from “Marigold Sky” in 1997 represent a songwriting team that produced 29 US Top 40 Billboard hits — and six No. 1 singles — over a span of 17 years.

That’s not to say the clearly appreciative audience went home disappointed, but it’s safe to say the phrase “I wish he had played…” probably got a workout during many conversations on the way home. For fans of Oates as an accomplished songwriter with great stylistic versatility, the show was subtle but satisfying. Those looking to lean into nostalgia, however, might think the hitmaker was “out of touch” with his fan base.

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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