Photography by Jennifer Uskolovsky
On a cold, uncharacteristically foggy night in La Brea, Puma Blue creates the perfect warm getaway.
Although Jacob Allen, known as Puma Blue, calls himself an indie/alternative singer, there isn’t a label that can encompass the range and depth of his music. His older singles incorporate elements of cool jazz, whereas his new album, In Praise of Shadows, merges with today’s electronic-R&B sound. Even though Allen’s discography has transformed over the years, fans embrace his new direction while honoring his roots.
Outside, the El Rey Theater’s marquee extravagantly lights up Puma Blue’s name. The theater is adorned with red velvet curtains, scarlet walls, dim candelabras and antique chandeliers, giving the venue an old-timey feel.
When a lofi piano melody begins playing at 10:00 pm, the crowd goes wild. The curtains dramatically open; on comes Puma Blue’s touring band, who begin playing his first song of the night, “Velvet Leaves.” Allen shortly follows and dives right into the number.
“Velvet Leaves” is emblematic of Puma Blue’s current sound. Released earlier this year, the melody is polished yet sensual, composed of an electronic drum beat and subtle guitar riffs. His vocals are sultry, but the lyrics are somber: the song describes the falling out of a close relationship.
Allen sings so closely to the microphone that his nose smudges up against its felt. Like the curtains that adorn the stage, his voice is rich and velvety. This opening number creates an intimate mood that’s apparent throughout the set; Allen draws the crowd in, seducing them with his vocals.
After “Velvet Leaves,” Allen addresses the audience for the first time. Born and raised in London, he has that stereotypical British charm. He jokes with the crowd and laments over the past year. Although he is dressed as a typical indie frontman, wearing a sweater vest and black pants, his personality is genuine and humble. For the first of many times, He shouts out his touring band members for the first of many times, creating an authentic atmosphere on stage.
When he moves into his second song of the night, “(She’s) Just a Phase,” the crowd knows the song right off the bat. They try to sing the first lines with him, but he stops abruptly.
“Since you all know the words, I want to get it just right.”
In between his vocals, Allen turns his back to the crowd to play concentrated guitar solos. He engages with the rest of the band, playing off their energy and adjusting to their rhythm to embellish the song with groovy riffs and pauses. He performs difficult guitar tricks without a sweat- it’s clear that he is in his element. His energy on stage is vastly different than in his discography. On stage, he is an electric performer, however his recordings are subtle and minimalistic; his recordings hide the true heights of his talent.
Although Allen is the frontman, he makes the performance a collaboration between all bandmates. During the third number, “Lust,” a saxophonist dives into an intense solo while Allen grooves along. Couples embrace and sway slowly to the sensual track; those who are unaccompanied feel left out.
When he introduces his oldest song, “Want Me,” he tells the crowd about the story of its release.
“I sent a demo of it over to my manager … He told me, ‘upload that shit to SoundCloud right now.’”
The crowd silently listens to the slow, jazzy number. Unlike his new, electronic-based songs, “Want Me” utilizes waltzy drum tempos, saxophone parts and deep bass rhythms. These subtle instrumental choices are akin to the sounds of the cool jazz era, and the track almost sounds like a modern, indie take.
When the track ends, there’s an abrupt shift in the energy. The drummer kicks into the fastest beat of the night and Allen increases the reverb on his guitar pedal for “Oil Slick.” Despite the song being a newer release, the fans dance along with familiarity, and the performers dive into their instruments, locking into the song’s fast pace.
After the song’s bridge, there is an unparalleled explosion of sound. Allen plays into his most intense solo of the night, the drummer bangs on his snare, the bassist upholds the fast rhythm and the saxophonist goes absolutely wild. While this may sound like a cacophony, it was their most harmonious moment.
The band upholds this energy for the next two tracks, “Bath House” and “Moon Undah Water.” The latter is a fan favorite, and the audience eats up the performance. Allen and the bassist play off each other yet again, playing funky riffs and adding in slight groovy pauses. Fans scream “Oh Shit!”
When “Moon Undah Water” ends, the band briefly exits the stage, and Allen returns for a solo performance of “Silk Print.” A spotlight falls on Allen as he sings the mournful breakup ballad. I’m not one to cry at concerts, but I found my eyes welling up, taken by the song’s sadness. His ability to evoke emotion is a testament to his sheer talent.
The last two songs of the night, “Midnight Blue” and “Only Trying to Tell You,” serve different roles in concluding the concert. “Midnight Blue” is a frontrunner in Puma’s discography, and fans sang along to the popular number. “Only Trying to Tell You” begins with a complex piano solo, catching listeners off guard, but eases into a slower tempo that accompanies the somber lyrics.
Allen says a few words as he concludes the show, closing the night in a personable way.
“Stay safe … And thank you for coming.”
Puma Blue delivered a performance that is hard to find in many artists today, let alone anywhere in his discography. Although he is in a new musical era, he owns his past work and pushes himself in the present, leaving listeners optimistic for the future.