Discovering that retro soul singer, Jarle Bernhoft, now simply known as Bernhoft, is the former front man of the alt-rock band, Span, is slightly mind-boggling. The self-described “country boy from Norway,” sounds more like a soulful country boy from down in New Orleans. Then again, once you see the amped-up intensity he brings to the stage it becomes clear that this outrageously gifted performer can master whatever genre catches his fancy.
Already a household name in Norway, Bernhoft is finally introducing North America to his exciting brand of 70’s infused classic R&B. He made his first Toronto appearance at The Drake Hotel’s, Underground (aka Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang room), on March 12th, performing to a sold out Toronto crowd, who already knew from YouTube (Ellen DeGeneres discovered him there last year) that this man does not disappoint.
The diverse crowd, many staking out front row spots nearly two hours before he took the stage, shook off any signs of restlessness once the lanky singer emerged. Greeting them with a coy smile, he began his set with a dazzling stripped-down version of “Control” from his sophomore album, Solidarity Breaks.
With just a loop station and guitar, the multi-instrumentalist ought to teach a master class on how a one-man-show should go down. Skillfully creating a sound that grew far beyond one any lone man should to be able to make single-handedly, Bernhoft did everything from layering his vocals to hissing into the strings of his guitar before turning it around to thump out a beat box rhythm on the back of it. Expertly dropping each sound in until it swelled into the energy of a full-fledged live band.
Merging a soulful blend of blues, jazz, and R&B, at times his style is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, while his socially conscious lyrics harkens back to Marvin Gaye. Guised behind nerdy chic oversized glasses and hipster attire, emanates a virile quality that is impossible to ignore, and a smooth baby making voice that makes even dark songs like, “Street Lights,” sound like the prelude to an amorous evening. (Every growl and drop of his voice summoned a glorious chorus of “YES’s!” by female audience members).
Laughter and banter laced its way through the 90-minute set as Bernhoft deftly lead the audience from call-and-response to follow-the-leader dance sessions, all the while sharing stories about narrow escapes from 8-foot-tall prostitutes (the inspiration behind “Street Lights”). When the eager crowd prematurely burst out into applause at what they thought was the end of “So Many Faces,” he feigned outrage, announcing, “The song ain’t over! You’re an impatient group of people,” before returning to the soulful “Oooooo,” he had been in the midst of. “Man, I thought Brooklyn last night would be hard to beat,” he confided after the audience finished an enthusiastic sing-along to, “C’mon Talk.” “But you’re fucking with Brooklyn, people!”
As the night came to an end, Bernhoft prepared the enraptured crowd for his final song, saying, “My name is Bernhoft, and I’m going to leave you with this little…” A female audience member wasn’t having it, yelling out, “Oh, no you’re not!” Causing laughter to erupt in the crowd. “Damn!” Responded Bernhoft, flashing that mischievous smile once more before capping off an amazing night with Tears for Fears “Shout,” and his gospel tinged, “Prayer to a Landlord.”
Photo Credit: (C) Fred Jonny
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