All he had was an acoustic guitar - no band, no dancers, no props. And he was casually dressed in a baseball cap and loose-fitting jeans. This was not a folk concert by the way. But Anthony David, an R&B upstart from Georgia, still managed to move the stylish crowd at Washington's Lincoln Theater on that chilly night last November. His voice - rough-hewn yet buttery in some parts, slightly reminiscent of Terry Callier - was full and engaging as he crooned self-penned, down-to-earth ballads of lust and heartbreak. He was funny, too, slipping in witty asides about crazy things men and women do while playing the grown-up game of love.
I was impressed. But David had already snagged me with his two indie albums, 3 Chords & the Truth (2004) and Red Clay Chronicles (2006). Though hip and progressive, his music still pulsed with the finer elements of yesterday's soul, mainly the lyrical sincerity and passionate, nuanced vocals.
Now with the help of his good friend, platinum-selling Grammy winner and fellow acoustic soul artist India.Arie, David's music may receive wider exposure. Two weeks ago, the singer-songwriter, who headlines Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis tonight, released his major label debut, Acey Duecy. The CD was issued through Soulbird, India.Arie's new boutique label, which is marketed and distributed by Universal Republic.
"The company had been following what I've been doing," David says. "We just sat down and made it happen. India was in the whole process."
The new album, whose title is the artist's nickname, is a compilation of sorts. David cherry-picked the 11 tracks from his two indie albums.
"It was just going over the songs that were crowd favorites," says the performer, who last week was in New York City. "They picked themselves, really."
In just the past four years, through relentless touring, the artist, whose full name is Anthony David Harrington, has built a strong fan base stretching from Georgia to Sweden. Having India.Arie as a close buddy certainly helped get his name out there. He wrote "Part of My Life," a cut on the singer's 2001 double-platinum debut, Acoustic Soul. He also toured with her and others of the neo-soul ilk, including Kindred the Family Soul. Aside from live performance and word of mouth, the Internet helped to introduce David's earthy sound, which he aptly calls "millennium blues," to thousands.
But, still, he needed a larger machine.
"We did good on our own, but the number of people you can be exposed to [with a major-label deal] is different. It's bigger, " David says. "Nothing beats radio and TV. The public still pays attention to those outlets. You can't get to them any other way. We did all we could on the Internet. Signing with a major label just elevated what I'm doing."
Given the wobbliness of the pop-music industry these days, major labels are putting the real bucks behind sure things, established acts guaranteed to generate millions. You don't find too many companies throwing money behind performers who haven't already been tested, so to speak. Although David did well on the underground soul scene, I'm willing to bet my laughably paltry savings that Acey Duecy won't become a runaway pop hit.
But that's not at all a knock against the album. David did a fine job of repackaging his indie cuts, creating a musically fluid set rich with keen lyrics about love ("Something About You," "Words," a duet with India.Arie), family ("Kinfolk") and hometown pride ("GA Peach"). He's refreshingly honest about the weakness of the flesh ("Cheatin' Man" and "Cold Turkey") and the perils of living as a black man in hostile cities ("Krooked Kop").
My favorite cut on the album is "Lady," which first appeared on Red Clay Chronicles. The simmering ballad - a duet with Keisha Jackson, the gifted daughter of soul legend Millie Jackson - sounds like something left off a vintage Isley Brothers album. Graceful lines from a muted trumpet spiral around the seductive vocals.
"I'm glad we got that song with Keisha on there," David says. "It shows the great talent down in Atlanta right now."
David is already in the throes of his second album, which will consist of all new material. Still untitled, it's due out next spring.
"It's not that high-minded, what I'm doing," David says. "I just want to give good music that feels good. I'm just looking to bring what I have, man."
Hear Anthony David perform at 8 tonight at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis. Tickets cost $17.50. Call 410-268-4545 or go to ramsheadtavern.com.