Bates still honing his sound in Collis

by Kate Carolan | 11/17/03 6:00am

In the radio world of mass-produced, cookie cutter male singer/songwriters, it's necessary to do something pretty spectacular in order to stand apart from the crowd. Listening to the radio these days, one might conclude that basically anyone who can play a guitar and carry a tune is radio-worthy, but to become a timeless singer/songwriter like Bob Dylan, Nick Drake or Richard Thompson it takes a great deal more talent than proclaiming that someone's body is a wonderland.

On Saturday evening, students were lured into Collis by the smell of pizza and the sounds of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." Unfortunately, while Elton John could certainly compete with O.A.R. for concert attendance, Spencer Bates was not quite so able. Bates, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter played the Collis dining room to a modest but attentive audience on Saturday night.

Bates began the evening by playing songs by his musical influences -- Elton John and Coldplay. Like Elton John and Chris Martin, Bates plays the piano. He explained that he often plays covers at the beginning of shows to attract people with familiar songs so that they might become interested and stick around.

The covers were pretty well executed, and soon Bates moved on to his own songs from his latest EP, "Back to School." The first song was a lively anti-graduation song, which had deep autobiographical significance for Bates who recently graduated from Northwestern University and yearned to return to his college days. The piano was very similar to Ben Folds, and the fun, frank and silly lyrics were screamed "Song for the Dumped," which was not surprising as he later admitted that Folds was another one of his major contemporary influences.

What really stuck out was the seeming disconnect between his music and his voice that was difficult to move past. Playing heavy chords like Folds requires the singer to match that with equally spunky vocals. Maybe it's not necessary, but anyone who has listened to Folds and hears piano they would identify as Folds-style-playing expects the corresponding vocals, so it sounded a little strange to have significantly gentler and softer vocals paired with fun and raucous piano playing.

This disconnect seemed to be something that would creep into many of Bates' songs throughout the rest of the night. The set consisted of mismatches between music and vocals and less dynamic songs that would require strength from the lyrics to carry the song, but the lyrics weren't particularly strong, either.

As an artist, though, Bates is decent. His music is good, and his vocals are good, but it seems as though he hasn't found the most effective way to combine the two yet.

His vocals are, in fact, unique. His voice sounds like the product of mixing Dan Fogelberg with a singer of Broadway musicals -- seemingly weird, but actually quite cool. Having a unique voice is exactly what one needs in order to get head and shoulders above all the other more regular singer/songwriters out there.

There's no question that Bates is talented, it's just a matter of him finding the style of music that is most compatible with his vocals and with the types of songs he wants to write.

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