Not many musicians can elicit a feeling of nostalgia—one that carries you wistfully into the past to a time often perceived as simpler and happier—without decades-old covers or a catalog that dates back to the good old days. But at barely 30-years-old, Anderson East skillfully conjures up those feelings, wrapping his audience in a warm blanket of familiar sounds created by his sandy, soulful voice and big band sound that combines instruments ranging from horns to vintage synths. It’s what’s helped propel his popularity in a relatively short amount of time (his debut album Delilah was released just three years ago) and what enabled him to sell out Chicago’s Thalia Hall on a warm spring evening in May.
In the midst of a marathon tour in support of his latest album, Encore, East seemed to draw from his own past as the grandson of a Baptist preacher in Alabama, commanding the crowd like it was Sunday morning and the spirit was within him. He came out swinging with the full-bodied, horn- and synthesizer-laden “Girlfriend,” a tune off the new album about longing and one that feels tailor-made for East’s gravely and mischievous voice. He leaned heavily on the new album early on, moving through “Surrender,” a fast-paced and energetic song that tests the limits of his vocal chords, and two covers: Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” and “Sorry You’re Sick,” a Ted Hawkins cover that’s nearly impossible not to dance to.
Encore’s “King for a Day” felt like the first song the crowd recognized off the new album, with the audience joining in on the catchy chorus as the song slowly built up. He brought it back to 2015’s gospel-esque love song “Devil in Me” before introducing a portion of his band to the crowd. On 2016’s “Learning,” East and his horn section passed the spotlight back and forth before East ultimately stole the show, dancing as if the song had crawled up inside of him and was trying to break out. As he guided the crowd to clap along with him, it seemed like no one in the room could be having quite as much fun as he was.
“You got me a little out of breath,” he said, before launching into a string of songs that sent the crowd into an endless spiral of dancing. “Hold On, I’m Coming” — a Sam and Dave cover from the late ‘60s — was given new life with East’s signature vocals, his lively horn section, and backup vocals from the crowd. “All on My Mind,” a slinky slow-to-building tune from the new album, was an obvious fan favorite, with the crowd shouting nearly every word. The soulful “This Too Shall Last” took a surprising turn when a band introduction prompted a “Let Me Clear My Throat” (DJ Kool) teaser.
“Mind if we play more? We’re having too much fun,” Anderson said before his last song. The band’s departure from the stage was quick—no doubt to make time for the four-song encore, which started with the slow, sad, and sweet “If You Keep Leaving Me” from the new album. East all but leaped straight into the crowd for 2015’s “Satisfy Me”—arguably one of the soulful singer’s most popular songs. “You sound beautiful ya’ll. Sing it for me, Chicago,” East yelled as the crowd sang, danced, and clapped along to a cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U.” Not wanting to leave the stage, East stretched out new tune “House is a Building” as long as he could, thanking Chicago for making Thalia Hall feel like home, even just for a night.