David Brookings and the Average Lookings at the Tabard Theatre, by Patric Carver
David Brookings and the Average Lookings (photo: Patric Carver)

The Theatre on San Pedro Square (TOSPS) is home of the Tabard Theatre Company and host to weekly free Tuesday night live music events known as TOSPS Tuesdays. It is also most definitely not easy to find. Tucked behind Peggy Sue’s Diner, this modest playhouse sits in the corner of an unilluminated brick courtyard. Until you get right up to the entrance, there are no playbills or advertisements. The layout almost seems like something from the back lot of a movie set. A quaint little downtown containing all the pleasantries of life: restaurants, shops, and theatres that are looped in impossible paths that make sense for a single-camera long take, but are not particularly practical for out-of-towners looking for a show. Residents are self-aware of this, as evidenced by several theatre workers declaring, “You found us!” as we entered.

Whatever navigation was needed to bring us to this space, it was worth it. There was a feeling of coziness emanating from all angles — the theater, the entertainers, even the other patrons. The stage was set for The Tabard Theatre Company’s production of Cemetery Club. Larger, in-the-way pieces had been pushed aside to make way for the musicians featured tonight, but the general appearance of a grandparent’s living room, complete with a chintz couch and crochet doilies, lingered.

Looking like he’d come straight from a style convention hosted by Full House’s intrepid rocker family man, Uncle Jesse, opener Rich Aljouny seemed slightly out of place amongst the frills and fake family photographs in the false living room. He was dark and polished and very much what you think of when you think of professional musician; he was somewhat of a sanitized Johnny Marr. Surroundings and performer were at a contrast, for sure, but his music provided the connective tissue that made the experience make sense. Spindly guitar picking in the vein of Fleetwood Mac’s "Landslide" was paired with Aljouny’s strained-in-order-to-sustain vocals to create this familiar but not worn out sound. It was comforting, but still had that edge. There was a genuine element. Romantic lyrics like, “Fell in love with a girl who grew up to be you,” were tempered with Aljouny’s sabulous arrangements. Nothing was too bubblegum, too sweet.

There’s a real temptation to compare Aljouny to The Beatles. Songs like "Everyone Sends Their Love"and "Tough Guys Don’t Dance" would have fit nicely on any of The Fab Four’s post-mop-top-era albums. They have that fantastical it’s-always-summer-somewhere quality that the dreamier, post-enlightenment Beatles tunes carry. I’m only uttering the comparison because I feel so many artists strive to capture that Beatles sound, but fail. I don’t know if Aljouny fully does so, or even if that is his aim. It is nice to hear possible inspiration translated into original works that don’t have that copycat feel.

To that end, I must make mention of Aljouney’s harmonica playing. It wasn’t a key element of his set, and I would argue that it by and large was an easily ignorable component. However, that’s what I liked about it so much. I’ve long believed that there is a time and place for that knee-slapping, reckless tram style of playing the harmonica, and that too many artists bumble their way into Blues-Traveler inspired solos on the tin sandwich when it is completely inappropriate. It belittles the instrument. The harmonica is more than a garish accessory to your good time single. Showing the real soul of the instrument, Aljouny played with a reedy force that seemed almost like the instrumental version of a breathless sigh filled with melancholy and perhaps a tinge of beautiful regret. If you were listening, it added. If you weren’t, it didn’t distract. It’s the little things like this that make artists like Aljouny a joy to experience.

Headliners David Brookings and the Average Lookings came on next and continued the joy. This is my second time seeing Brookings and company perform, and, though many of the songs were the same, it was a unique experience. This was partially because of the setting in the Tabard Theatre, but mostly it was just due to the affable nature of Brookings and his bandmates. The set felt intimate but not amateurish. Brookings has all the qualities of a great modern day showman – he sells himself without seeming to be for sale.

The Average Lookings set was a mix of original tunes and covers. Sometimes a collection of covers is a sign of a band that doesn’t have a lot to say yet, but I believe with Brookings it is just the opposite. He’s got a lot to say in terms of not only playing homage to other artists but in reworking their pieces in a respectful but colorful way. They played a lovely and very punchy version of Bob Dylan’s "Girl from the North Country." I know everyone idolizes Dylan, but my ear has never been able to embrace his nasal-nipped sound. Brookings’ version took the best part of Dylan — the poetry — and married it to the stronger sound that it deserves. It felt I was listening to the song the way it was meant to be sung — like the words were finally breathing freely.

My favorite cover of the night was a song that I think is simply not remembered enough, The Beatles’ "Hey Bulldog." Possibly one of the last truly collaborative efforts that The Beatles produced, this tune has that simpler time feel coupled with chaotic lyrics that just captures that modern-man desperation so well. It makes no sense, but it also is so telling. Unlike the Average Lookings' reworking of "North Country," this was a true cover. The magic lay in the fact that Brookings covered such a good song so well. Years ago, I saw Dave Grohl perform this same cover at The Grammys and I remember thinking, “Well, no one can do that as well as the original.” Brookings proved me wrong.

The Average Lookings are not parrots of the past, though, their original music was just as enthralling as their covers. There was a dizzy little number called "Basement Room" that captured the excitement of a teenage makeout session with a youthful voice. It wasn’t as if I was listening to the memories of a jaded middle-aged person, but the immediate post lip-lock triumph of adolescent innocence. Though Brookings, whose wife and daughter were sitting in the front row, is assuredly past that stage in this life, he managed to encapsulate that feeling with both his lyrics and poppy sound.

Probably the highlight of this set for me was their song "Hearts." With its simple chorus and hummable tune, it held the joy and promise of every truly good pop song. It was a catchy tune that made me feel something, remember my younger days, and still feel energized. The lyric “My heart’s not old enough to know where it should go,” is so beautiful because it speaks to a universal experience that is deeply personal. The content is so simple, but speaks to such complex moments.

Without any 10-dollar words, Brookings creates a fortune of smart pop that really sticks with you long after the show. That is probably the magic of David Brookings and the Average Lookings. There’s a nostalgic quality to their sound that is utterly confusing — like you’re remembering a place you’ve never been before. You’re hearing songs from your past that weren’t written until recently. They’re capturing a moment that never happened but we all remember. It is damn fine music.

David Brookings and the Average Lookings will be performing March 25 at Red Rock Coffee in Mountain View.

TOSPS Tuesday occurs every Tuesday night at The Theatre on San Pedro Square in San Jose. King 5 will be the featured musical act next TOSPS Tuesday on February 28