Christian McNeill performs during his sold-out show last night at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge.
There are two artists within him. There’s Christian McNeill, the achingly poignant balladeer who — with just his lush voice and guitar — can hush a Somerville Theater crowd as he did when opening for British folk star Laura Marling in 2013. Then there’s McNeill, the whirling dervish in the middle of a sea of instruments who leaves behind that subtlety for soaring, almost cinematic waves of the rhythm and horn-fueled rock he favors with his originals. Last night at Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, the capacity crowd caught glorious glimpses of both as McNeill kicked into high gear what is essentially a farewell tour as, after 22 years in Boston, he says he’ll return at least temporarily to his native Derry, Ireland, in November.
McNeill started his nearly two-hour set solo, kidding that his nine-piece band told him to get his ballads out of the way “so I don’t bring everyone down in the middle” of the show. He started out with two quiet takes — “You Have Always Been a Friend” and “You Know I Believe In You” before calling Tim Gearan and Kristin Santangelo to the stage for backing vocals on the beautifully resonant “Caged Bird.” (Gearan’s blues band, the Dennis Brennan-fronted White Owls, had opened the night with a set that was eclectic and electric.)
Then McNeill emerged with the full band and we mean full — Johnny Trama, guitar; Paul Schultheis, keys; Yahuba; congas; Marco Giovino, drums; Jesse Williams, bass; Scott Aruda, trumpet and vocals; John Aruda, tenor sax; and Santangelo, vocals. This was basically the core of the group Sea Monsters, which McNeill headed for years with legendary blowouts at the long-defunct Precinct. The energy in the Lizard instantly jumped as the highly recognizable groove of “Don’t Make Me Wait” rose from a swirl to a crescendo.
The show built masterfully from there with McNeill literally at the center of it all. He commands the stage not only with that enviably sonorous voice that has netted him multiple Boston Music Awards, but with the vigor of a ringmaster and conductor rolled into one. When he spins away from the mic during solos and instrumental bridges, McNeill turns circles in the middle of the stage, engaging directly with each player. You can feel the bandmates feeding of his energy, and he off theirs.
At one point, after renewing in unbelievably tight and scintillating fashion “Zero,” the hit that got international attention and earned steady rotation on SiriusXM’s Little Steven’s Underground Garage, McNeill excitedly turned to band and yelled, “That’s how we do it. That’s how we do it!”
A moment later, a smile crossed his face, he looked to the crowd and gestured behind him, saying, “Am I lucky bastard to have this band or what?” He then noted that Giovino tours with no other than the legendary Tom Jones, and quipped, “It’s not unusual that he plays with us.” The joke and the significance was not lost on the crowd.
As with Sea Monsters, the blend of styles and influences is intoxicating, turning elements of soul, gospel and R&B into a cocktail that rocks. Although McNeill is loathe to hear himself compared to fellow Northern Irelander Van Morrison, he can hardly escape it considering the incredible range, tone and quality of his voice. Unlike Morrison, though, McNeill’s stage presence is natural, unaffected and powerfully evocative, almost overwhelming. It is part of the entertainment package. McNeill is also the rare singer who can maintain complete control even when he reaches for the highly emotional and oft-screamed refrains of his originals.
That was perhaps most evident on the highlight of the night, the roiling and rocking “If You Need Some (Come and Get Some”) with its joyous interjection, “Sing along, sing along, sing along!” — which, of course, everybody did.
While the singer-songwriter side of Christian McNeill will be still be heard plenty around these parts for the coming months — including his Tuesday song-swap residency with Gearan at Sally O’Brien’s and a special one-off with his acclaimed Derry-based daughter Reevah at the Burren in May — he promises one, maybe two more big band shows in the late summer or fall before he leaves.
One thing is for sure. When McNeill leaves for Ireland in November, Boston is going to miss his presence … both of them.