Theo Katzman Puts in the Hard Work at MilkBoy (Show Review)

Thirty minutes after The Idea Men opened for Theo Katzman at Milkboy, Katzman and his band are nowhere to be seen. Someone tells me their bus arrived late. Another says the band is just celebrating 4/20. I don’t think it’s the latter, but people are getting antsy regardless.

For those of you who don’t know, Theo Katzman is the drummer of Vulfpeck, a mystically minimalist, Michigan-born funk band with a cult following. Vulfpeck is known for their instrumentals and improvisational jams, but Katzman won’t be doing much jamming tonight. He’s here to play singer-songwriter pop, a clear departure from the Vulfpeck style. The crowd tonight is predominantly made up of Vulfpeck fans (AKA the Vulfpack) who are curious to see what Katzman has to offer. In other words, he has some proving to do in order to escape the mighty Vulf-shadow and establish himself as a solo artist.

 Katzman with fellow Vulfpeck band members in their patented retro art style

Katzman with fellow Vulfpeck band members in their patented retro art style

As we approach forty minutes of wait time, people start to voice their doubts about the show. I hear several musings on whether any Vulfpeck songs will be played, a few ‘better be worth its’, and some vague threats of disappointment if bassist Joe Dart doesn’t get time to solo.

Finally, without warning, the band marches upstairs and into the crowd. Looks of pleasant surprise register on their faces as they're cheered onstage. They weren’t expecting this warm of a welcome for their first time in Philly. The long wait between acts seems to have worked in their favor. The crowd’s energy is buzzing. Katzman confirms how happy and shocked he is to have sold out the show and opens up the first song with an A cappella intro. Off to a great start.

 Photo: Bellemore Photography

Photo: Bellemore Photography

The band is a four-piece with Katzman on guitar, Jacob Jeffries on keys, Julian Allen on drums, and fellow Vulfpeck member Joe Dart on the Fender bass. Whenever Dart is mentioned, the Vulfpack explodes with excitement. In fact, the biggest reaction from the room all night is when Dart plays a split-second bass fill.

 Photo: Bellemore Photography

Photo: Bellemore Photography

Before the show, I had doubts as to whether Katzman could stand on his own. Like most of the crowd, I’m a Vulfpeck fan first. I only knew a few singles from his new album “Heartbreak Hits”, and while I liked them, I naively figured he was just riding the wave of Vulfpeck popularity to play rockstar. That's clearly not the case.

Katzman is a polished performer, and he's been around the block. He went to Jazz school at the University of Michigan and has been touring and performing for over 10 years.  His vocal performance is strong. It sounds like he went back in time and stole young Michael Jackson’s voice. He’s on key the whole night, changes pitch on a dime, and routinely matches guitar riffs to his vocal melodies.  But what really stood out is how tight the band sounded. Everyone played perfectly in the pocket with a commendable level of discipline.

One thing the show could’ve gone without was Katzman’s long monologues between songs. After the first song, he rambled for 5 minutes about getting to see an exclusive Dave Chappelle performance. The story ended with an invitation not to use phones during the show, but it felt like more of a humble brag about the celebrities he’s meeting in LA. 

Katzman played almost all of his Heartbreak Hits and precisely zero Vulfpeck tunes. I wasn't disappointed in the slightest. He’s a skilled songwriter and kept the audience engaged through every tune. His music gives me feelings of nostalgia that I can’t place. For an album written about heartbreak, the songs feel surprisingly happy. 

 Photo: Bellemore Photography

Photo: Bellemore Photography

I thought his performance of Hard Work would be the highlight of the night, but it turned out to be Plain Jane Heroin. Katzman started the song off with an intimate solo intro (made less intimate by people chattering in the back) until the band came back onstage to ramp up the energy and bring the song to its bittersweet ending. After a three song encore including an Allen Stone cover, the band hung around to take pictures and sign autographs.

I talked to Katzman after the show, and he lamented how some venues were proposing 10 piece jam bands to open for him. They didn’t understand he wasn’t coming to perform Vulfpeck. It made me think of how daunting this tour has to be for Katzman. He has to redefine himself at every stop and show people that he’s more than Vulf’s drummer. I personally would have loved to hear Vulfpeck tunes at the show, but that would have been a mistake on Katzman’s part and he's well aware of it. He didn’t pander to our funky desires; he performed his own pop music, declaring to the world, “This isn’t Vulfpeck. This is Theo Katzman. Take it or leave it.” 

And people took it.

Kyle Sparkman