by Dom Jones
Thomas Stewart, IV has sung background vocals for multiple people every semester since I’ve come to Berklee (including me!). If you’ve met Tom, then you know he’s laid back, almost shy, and always unassuming. So, I was excited for him when he told me late last semester that he’d be (finally) having his own show on Valentine’s Day. His nerves were palpable weeks before the show, and he changed the name of it a couple of times, finally landing on “Hot Sauce,” (homage, we all assumed, to Queen Bey). Valentine’s Day is a challenging time to produce a show for, the assumption being that all of the couples will have day long plans outside of and between classes and the singles will be trying to seem unaffected by the day altogether. It’s fitting that Thomas be the one to have a show on this day, as he shows up for everyone and gives love – and now he was giving all of us a chance to show up for him and return it. Because I arrived early, I was among the throng of supporters buzzing outside of the door, waiting for soundcheck to conclude. I even heard some students lament that they wished they could attend the show, before rushing off to class. I would find that students (and former students) would continue to pour in, even for just the last few minutes of the show.
Tom welcomed everyone by saying that he really wanted to create a space for everyone to relax and chill, since we’re all always so uptight, sharing that he hoped this would be a time when we could all enjoy music and each other’s company without the pressures that inevitably affect all of us at Berklee. Launching into the fun tune, “It’s Love” by Jill Scott (aided by Amber Kiner on lead vocals), the show started off upbeat with smiles from the band and audience alike. His rendition of “The Way” also by Miss Jill Scott was a highlight of the performance, with Thomas showing off his upper register, belting out notes that would seem out of reach for his usual baritone sound. It was obvious, though he sometimes seemed to cling to the mic stand, that he was pushing himself out of his comfort zone to give us a great experience. His background vocalists weren’t too shabby, either, with Lisa Oduor-Noah and Danny Garza both also taking lead at some point in the show (we were all on the edge of our seats waiting for Sarah Vela’s turn, which sadly did not come). A strong band behind him, we saw John Michael Bradford shine on trumpet, Will Nelson shine on guitar, Lajone Campbell shine on drums, and this is indicative of Tom’s character. Even as he stepped out as the frontman, he still embedded moments in his show for everyone to shine on their respective instrument.
Perhaps the most endearing moment of the show was when everyone cleared the stage, and Thomas shared a personal story about struggling with his identity as a child, being plunged into depression, and the emotional work that it took to emerge from that space. Crediting his spirituality as a large contributor to overcoming those challenges, he took on a familiar tune to those of us who are gospel savvy, “Falling in Love with Jesus.” With just the grand piano behind him, he told us that he was singing this song to the struggling child he once was. And sing to that child he did.
What I enjoyed and respected most about this show is that the vocal ability was clear, but controlled. Where many of us go crazy for over the top riffing and ridiculous arrangement alterations, Thomas just sung his songs with heart and meaning. This isn’t to say that he didn’t riff or do cool things with the music, it’s to say that he kept it so intentional and tasteful that he not only accomplished his goal to create a space of relaxation and comfort, he became a lesson in showmanship for all of the 1st semesters watching him. Ultimately, while ‘Hot Sauce’ gave us more thoughtful savoriness than sassy spice, it was up there with the better performances we clamor to see all semester, and hopefully not the last time Thomas Stewart steps out front.
CHECK OUT THOMAS STEWART’S COVER OF SADE’S “STRONGER THAN PRIDE.”