PHILADELPHIA -- Before Charlie Puth bolted for the Top 40 summit -- around this time last year with his poignant rap-pop Wiz Khalifa collaboration "See You Again" -- he was a meticulously trained jazz pianist, at Berklee College of Music and even earlier in his native Rumson.
Then perhaps fans should have expected the blooming pop star to precede his simply smooth hit "Marvin Gaye" Monday night in Philadelphia with something a bit more challenging.
Before the 24-year-old singer crooned the opening tune's first lines, his fingers embarked on an intricate piano introduction that was far more Gershwin than Gomez -- Puth's gal pal Selena, that is.
Though we'll never be sure how well his largely teen-girl audience appreciated such instrumental flourishes -- they shrieked reliantly for Puth's every sound and smile -- the gifted musician was sure to reveal every bit of flash from his playbook, self-serving or not.
This was his show, after all. On the strength of a trio of polished pop singles -- totaling more than 2 billion plays on YouTube alone -- and well-circulated debut LP "Nine Track Mind" released in January, Puth is in the midst of his largest headlining tour so far. The roadshow finishes up Friday at Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, where Puth was a member of the music academy.
Mixed with some dorky, nice-guy candor and unexpected soul, Puth's sold-out night at Philly's Theatre of Living Arts was both authentically effervescent and commanding.
- An astute composer, who acted as his own producer on most of "Nine Track Mind," Puth surely understood he needed to restrain his own keys-centric abilities and instead focus on vocal hooks that range from delightfully creamy to a little too vanilla. Many critics slammed "Mind" for the latter. But in the live setting, where Puth is allowed to freely tinker, many numbers were bolstered by jazzed up interludes or outtros. Respective banger and ballad "Dangerously" and "Losing My Mind" each benefitted from Puth's bright bits of improv, and support from his three-piece band.
- Though Puth only played for just over an hour -- his limited songbook requires some thickening -- he did well to unfurl a few more tricks to thrill his enraptured crowd, including beat-boxed sessions for "Marvin Gaye" and his Gomez collab "We Don't Talk Anymore," but perhaps most effective was his storytelling. The crowd all but puddled when he explained how the love note "Then There's You" -- one of a few acoustic tracks he delivered while perched atop his baby grand -- was about a girl he talked to for hours and "almost kissed."
- Puth's unassuming appearance helped sell his underdog persona. Clean-shaven and a little gangly, he could easily pass for a high school student, especially in Monday's simple, white t-shirt and jeans. But his vocal offerings were far more mature. The smoky, a capella finish to "We Don't Talk Anymore" and his falsetto descents in sultry jam "Suffer" were most memorable.
- The show's most significant problem came not from Puth, who in this 800-capacity club felt ready for larger stages, but from his tech-toting fans. Put the phones down, guys and girls. Taking a photo for Instagram or video for Snapchat is okay for a song or two, but the view of Puth sitting at his piano was blocked each song by a sea of glowing rectangles. Teens and adults alike need to revisit the idea of living in the moment. For those vertically challenged fans attending the standing-room show, this must have been a nightmare.
THE SET LIST
- "Marvin Gaye"
- "Some Type of Love"
- "Losing My Mind"
- "Left Right Left"
- "My Gospel"
- "Up All Night"
- "Then There's You"
- "We Don't Talk Anymore"
- "One Call Away"
- "See You Again"