One ‘Version’ of his life
“I feel like I’m 75, and it’s ‘This Is Your Life,’ and they’re wheelin’ out people from my childhood,” Mark Ronson said a few songs into his gala performance Wednesday at the El Rey. He was marveling a bit too intensely at the parade of talented but obscure vocalists who’d taken the microphone so far, during his first Los Angeles show with a band. But Ronson knows how to place a zinger for the most impact. Just then Robbie Williams strode onstage, and the DJ-producer turned solo artist’s hyperbole became justifiable.
Williams, one of England’s biggest pop stars, elicited the “oohs” and “aahs” Ronson wanted as he celebrated the release of “Version,” his second solo album, a collection of reworked English chart hits. The dapper but somewhat subtle 32-year-old bandleader stood to the side playing guitar as Williams, a world-class ham, shadow-boxed through the Charlatans’ song “The Only One I Know.” Then he was gone, returning the spotlight to his once and future producer.
The moment defined what makes a producer important these days: not just ears gifted enough to create a signature sound, but the party-throwing skills of Hugh Hefner. Ronson, who recently entered the league in which big hitters such as Timbaland play, is expert at coaxing interesting talent and enhancing their gifts within well-appointed musical environments.
Ronson was born in London but grew up mostly in New York, and his sound traces the transatlantic journey of soul and hip-hop. It may seem easy to peg, but his perfectly tailored adjustments of that erudite sound for each client make him beloved.
His productions for Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen both sparkled with rhinestone retro ornamentation, but the former is full of teary girl-group memories, while the latter borrows the streetwise bounce of vintage reggae and ska.
“Version,” which provided the material for this set, is a calling card and a sneak preview. Most of the vocalists who joined him at the El Rey, including D.C.-based rapper Wale, Philadelphia-bred vocalist Santogold, big-throated Londoner Tawiah and Australian emergent heartthrob Daniel Merriweather, have Ronson-helmed projects in the works.
Their turns Wednesday were meant to show off particular skills -- Wale’s metrical approach to rhyming, Merriweather’s breathy croon -- that might stick in audience member’s minds. Ronson was happy to stand back and let his protégés shine as they reinterpreted music by celebrated acts including the Smiths and the Jam.
Some guests had already done enough shining to let themselves simply enjoy Ronson’s fete. Alex Greenwald of L.A. band Phantom Planet sang like a rock star and gleefully stage-dove. Ethiopian American singer Kenna turned the Ryan Adams song “Amy” into psychedelic soul. Nikka Costa, returning a favor to her old producer, wowed with a Tina Turner-style cameo.
Behind these stellar throats, Ronson’s band revved up his loose arrangements and kept the capacity crowd doing the frug. The Haggis Horns (England’s equivalent to the better-known Daptones) kept the sound bright, and former Jamiroquai bassist Stu Zender kept it funky. Ronson himself contributed on various instruments, but mostly he was the ultimate anchorman, lending continuity to a rapid-fire event. This was Ronson’s life, after all, unfolding in sound. And it’s clearly only the beginning.