Tim Hockenberry, still near the beginning of his Monday night residency in the new Rrazz Room in San Francisco’s Nikko Hotel, is that rare kind of performer whose style is difficult to define — in a good way.
A singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Hockenberry has been known to appear in a cabaret setting, but his current show-tuneless act really doesn’t fit that bill.
On April 14, to an audience that included Bonnie Riatt and other hometown friends, the Mill Valley-based musician and his superb band — guitarist Gowain Matthews, bassist Terry Miller and drummer Vince Littleton — played a set that veered from ballads to folk to pop to jazz. Many of the tunes leaned on the sad side.
The first thing a listener thinks upon hearing him sing is Tom Waits. Hockenberry’s distinctive gruff vocal, sometimes punctuated by howling, is clearly reminiscent of Waits, or Joe Cocker. His tone gives each song an appealing urgency and depth, or a hard-to-resist shade of melancholy.
Yet his material, particularly his original tunes, is far from avant-garde. His melodic, keyboard-driven songs — “Back in Your Arms,” “The Time by Me,” “She Tried to Be,” “The One I Love” — could be sung by Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Michael McDonald or James Blunt.
In concert, they come off as effectively as covers of tunes by the likes of Bob Dylan (Hockenberry has made a CD titled “Mostly Dylan” with Tom Corwin) and Bruce Springsteen.
Hockenberry accompanied himself on electric piano for most of the show, although he picked up a trombone for a particularly cookin’ version of “Unchain My Heart” and a funky “Built for Comfort.”
Other insightful, emotional covers included the Beatles’ “Girl,” Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Springsteen’s “JerseyGirl” and, not surprisingly, Waits’ “Closing Time” and “Heart of Saturday Night.”
Throughout the show, the mood was casual and relaxed, though heated. Hockenberry wiped his head with a towel between tunes and called out to pals in the crowd. Singer Phillip Claypool came to the stage for a number; Matthews, who also played mandolin, nicely got to show off his virtuosity on electric and acoustic guitar.
Hockenberry’s new recording, “Back in Your Arms” on About Records, is slated for release in June. If you’re a fan of thoughtful singer-songwriters, see this show, then look forward to picking it up.
IF YOU GO
Tim Hockenberry and Friends
Where: Rrazz Room, Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Mondays; closes June 16
Contact: (866) 468-3399 or www.therrazzroom.com