On one fateful and pretty damn hot evening, the Empty Bottle hosted Har Mar Superstar, the musical superhero that is Sean Tillman, for two shows of Sam Cooke covers. Right off the bat this sounds like a marvelous idea: Tillman’s voice is tailor made for Cooke covers and he tends to create covers that are not only reverential to the originals but exude his trademark bravado. Little did I realize just how well Tillman would do with Cooke songs. I attended the first of the back to back shows at Empty Bottle, and left wanting to stay for the second.
There was no opener for the night, instead leaving all the focus on Tillman and the Har Mar Supersstar band. He immediately announced that the show would be 45 minutes of Sam Cooke covers followed by Har Mar originals. The crowd seemed delighted with the prospect of getting everything in one night and as Tillman kicked things off with “Get Yourself Another Fool”, it became clear that the promise of a good night was guaranteed.
Tillman’s voice was immaculate through the songs, getting as much as he could muster from the. He continually spoke of how highly he regard Sam Cooke and his music, down playing his ability. It was true humility that ultimately wasn’t needed. He and the band did a fantastic job of covering the classics and making them shine with their talent. “Another Saturday Night” towed the line of between it’s sullen lyrics of being alone and its danceable instrumentation. “Oh What a Wonderful World This Would Be”, which Tillman’s later joked about the lyrics if they were taken literally, was full of the wholehearted lov that it exalts.
The set was filled with so many amazing moments that t honestly felt surreal. ” Cupid and “Nothing can Change this Love” soared bright, “You Send Me” and “Home (When Shadow Fall)” felt emphatically special, but it was the one two punch of “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Having a Party” that had the crowd dancing a well as they could. Tillman admitted he didn’t know exactly (or at all) what the watusi looked like, but he hoped he had gotten it right and begged the crowd not to look it up and tell him. The mystery was better.
There was one notable song that didn’t appear in the setlist, one that even Tillman knew he had to explain. “It just means too much” he said of ” A Change is Gonna Come”. He reasoning was sound and respectful, noting that he definitely couldn’t do it justice and it’s meaning and power should left to more appropriate hands. There were no upset boos but rather encouraging cheers that lead straight into “Bring it on Home to Me”, ending the Sam Cooke portion of the evening with an utter jam.
The latter half flew closer to what you would expect from Tillman. Articles of clothes were removed, his intensity riled up, and the sound went on full blast from Har Mar, the band, and the crowd. The Bottle can get pretty loud, but the audience tonight was on fire, sending out every energetic cheer they possibly could to the band.
From his head stand in the middle of songs to impassioned vocal performances diggin straight into the crowd, Tillman was a man on a mission to impress and accomplished it readily. “Prisoner” and “Restless Leg” started off his original songs, still feeding off his Sam Cooke energy. “How Did I Get Through the Day” in particular felt like a throwback sound that made the switch over to his own songs from Cooke’s feel natural and sublime.
He finished off the first show of the night and the adoring crowd with “Baby You Shot Me”, an encore song that flt like a cathartic scream of relief as Tillman belt out the love lorn song’s lyrics. The dancing never stopped throughout the night and reached a satisfying height here as every body in the Bottle was dancing their way to the end of such a blisteringly great night.
All photos by Julian Ramirez