Adulation may not be the best medicine, but it had curative powers for Tom Krell on Thursday night at the Rock & Roll Hotel. The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, who performs with two backing musicians under the name How to Dress Well, followed his first song with a plea: “We need a lot of love tonight because we’re all very sick and tired.”
The love was forthcoming, and Krell repeatedly thanked the audience for it. Other cities don’t always get his spare electro-soul music, the singer said, but Washington was connecting. He thanked the crowd for a “beautiful” singalong and allowed himself to be talked into a brief encore after warning that he shouldn’t sing anymore.
That final number was “Decisions,” sung not only a cappella, but also without a microphone, as Krell waved his arm as if conducting a silent orchestra. The rest of the 45-minute set was also stark, but not unadorned. The tall, intense musician used two mikes, moving between them to achieve various effects. Krell has a delicate but reliable tenor that often shifted up to falsetto. The backing was mostly electronic, partially pre-programmed and less dense than on the musician’s latest album, “Total Loss.” A few songs featured electric violin, played live, and some of the noisier beats were generated on the spot.
Although those beats periodically accelerated, most of the set proceeded at a deliberate pace. The power came not from forward motion, but from the upward shifts of Krell’s yearning vocals. This strategy is familiar from “quiet storm” soul, where it usually conveys romantic desire. But How to Dress Well’s material is more concerned with death than love. Such phrases as “my condolences” surfaced through the heavily treated vocalese, and “Set It Right” featured a long list of departed friends and relatives, each followed by “I miss you.” The mix of earthy music and ethereal melancholy was odd, but deliberately so. Even in a unwell state, Krell was fully in control of the incongruity.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.