REVIEW: Greg Laswell at Music Box Supper Club


Words and photography: Alex Cooke

On a cold, snowy evening, Greg Laswell took the stage at Music Box Supper Club, a pleasant, elegant venue that overlooks the Cuyahoga River and Cleveland skyline. He sat down at the piano with nary a word, and launched into “What a Day,” one of his most well-known songs. The song has been a staple in his repertoire for over a decade, existing in three separate studio versions, each unique and showcasing his stylistic trends at that moment in time. “What a Day” might be the microcosmic representation of Laswell: ever evolving and growing, but with an unmistakable throughline in his output.

It’s the combination of that throughline, his artistry, and his subject matter that draws fans to Laswell’s music: he takes his personal struggles and triumphs and puts them on display, and there’s no mistaking that people connect with them. Just standing within earshot of the merchandise table after any show, one can hear fan after fan greet him and mention how some specific song helped them through a difficult time. Laswell has even said it’s his favorite part of touring.

After the opening two songs, Laswell greeted the audience, half-joking “we’re going to get good and depressed together tonight,” eliciting laughter from those there who know his music is often melancholic, but at the same time, often uplifting and always introspective. On the stage sat a grand piano, an electric piano, and a guitar, and Laswell moved between the three stations every few songs. If you’d listened to his latest album, “Next Time,” you might have wondered how the ornate and sweeping orchestrations of songs like “Royal Empress” would translate to a solo performer. Laswell mentioned that this wasn’t an issue for him, because this is how the songs were written. It showed, as songs like the aforementioned “Royal Empress” and “Super Moon” were delivered with a sort of ease and organic nature as he explored them onstage, adding improvisatory twists, playing with tempo and timing. The same applied to older material as well. If you had seen Laswell on a previous tour and heard songs like “Lie to Me,” you might be surprised at how different they sound this time around. Each song seems to be filtered through his headspace at the moment, and it lends his already cohesive discography a certain in-the-moment connectedness, making the shows unfold less as discrete blocks of music and more as a smooth story, a journey of sorts.

The beauty of Laswell’s lyrics is how they resonate with so many: unencumbered by overly nuanced metaphor or abstraction, his words are direct and yet elegant. His smooth baritone voice delivered them with ease, while his piano and guitar-playing complemented them well. One particularly unexpected highlight was “Amazing Grace.” Laswell mentioned how he’s always loved the hymn and then proceeded to show off his piano skills by starting with just the sparse melody, before gradually building to a jubilant and ornate finish.

In between songs, Laswell mixed light banter and personal stories. He’s a genuinely funny person, and he responded organically with the audience, graciously accepting shouted questions and offering hilarious anecdotes about the little ridiculous moments of life as a musician, such as an angry and humorously profane Myspace message he received from a movie theater worker who was not fond of his cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girl Just Wanna Have Fun” that played in the theater multiple times a day, eliciting loads of laughter from the audience at the over-the-top message. Laswell detailed how he responded with an apology, and the angry man, stunned by having received any response at all, lightened up and eventually turned into a fan. He also offered moments of genuinely moving insight into the specific events and heartache that went into his songs; rarely is a performer so candid on stage. At one point, an audience member yelled out that Laswell is the “singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter,” an apt description. The thing that makes his work so eloquent is that it’s never flashy, instead relying on his musical sense and lyrical prowess to deliver just the right message at just the right moment with just the right notes. The night ended with his cover of “Girl Just Wanna Have Fun,” Laswell’s introspective voice and delicate musical touch lending the song a fresh feel.


Laswell mentioned that he’ll be doing another tour in late spring with a full band; be sure to go out and see him then. You’ll be in for a great night of music.