Paul Thorn faithfully locked down Skipper's Smokehouse this past weekend as the Tupelo-born, Southern-drawn, pimped-out roots rocker played to a phalanx of screaming, singing fans during a two-night stand. The Saturday night show was a sell-out, topping the dense crowd Thorn attracted for his 2015 show at the same venue. This year, it was a park-down-the-street approach as lines of vehicles combed the parking lot. Inside, the energy had reached a steady pulse. Thorn was on hand for his characteristic meet-and-greet, surfing through the crowd, taking photos and chatting face-to-face with adoring devotees. His accessibility is uncommon in artists of Thorn's stature.
"He's such a personable guy," nearby attendee Mike Foley commented. "I've been a fan for years but the fact that he played here 12 to 15 years ago and always comes back to WMNF and Skipper's is amazing and I appreciate that he's so down-to-earth."
Foley related an encounter he and his sister had with Thorn at last year’s show. After finding out that Foley's mother had recently passed, Thorn offered condolences and gave Foley's sister, who’d been taking the loss particularly hard, the set list from that night with Thorn's hit, “Everthing's Gonna Be Alright” highlighted.
That heartfelt encounter is one of the many reasons he continues to draw so many loyal followers all over the country and when Thorn took the stage on Saturday, just a few minutes before 10 p.m., the ones who’d come to see him on this night were already packed in tight.
By song two, the title track off 2012 album What the Hell is Going On?, Thorn was in fine bantering form and shaking a homemade maraca someone had thrown onto the stage.
“Everybody Needs Somebody” (a well-recognized ode off his most recent release, 2014’s Too Blessed to Be Stressed) got the crowd going, and is one of those songs that shows Thorn’s ability to toe the line between poetic troubadour ("karma and consequence don't play") and everyman singer-songwriter (“I'm just like you, even I get the blues").
The weekend’s Valentine's Day theme prompted Thorn to call attention to a couple in the crowd that evening who’d met on Match.com. As it turns out, one of their shared interests was a love of Paul Thorn. The man of the hour used the story to segue smoothly into the deep, lusty and more traditional blues-vibing “Starvin' for Your Kisses.” Even seeing half a dozen Paul Thorn shows, his segues still sound fresh, many rooted to his Tampa fanbase and quite clearly made up on the spot.
"It's a little bit of both [planned and improvised segues]," Thorn said later. "It depends because there might be something that presents itself in the crowd and I can jump on it."
The packed house at the Skipperdome that night got treated to a little of both. Thorn discussed the inspiration behind “This Is a Real Goodbye” – an overheard conversation between his daughter and her now ex-boyfriend, the title taken directly from her parting words to him.
Dr. Love's keyboard-heavy rendition of “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand” brought the tempo right back up and a black fedora was flung on stage at its end. Thorn donned it, thanked the fan who'd tossed it, and kept the energy high with an earlier number, “Burn Down the Trailer Park.” After “If I Can Get Over Her,” Thorn attempted to give the knit beanie he wore onstage to the lady who’d thrown him the fedora. A strange exchange followed. Thorn explained: "I was trying to give my hat to the lady that had given me hers and some b*tch came up and snatched it out of my hands and walked off with it … What kind of legacy is that? She is gonna go to her friends and say, ‘Look I stole this hat out of Paul Thorn's hand!’"
Thorn returned to the feel-good vibe without delay, hitting on some upbeat offerings – “Bull Mountain Bridge” and “Everything's Gonna Be Alright” before exiting the stage. Not a single person in the crowd budged until his return, and he obliged with an encore of “Get You a Healin,” only he sang the number after wading rows deep into the audience, even taking the fan who gave him the fedora in his arms for a short dance as he made his way to the back of the venue.
On Valentine’s Day Sunday, Thorn took the early time slot and the venue was nearly as packed at 6 p.m. as it was at 11 p.m. on Saturday, with many in the very same spots they’d claimed the night before. When Thorn asked who’d been to the Saturday show, nearly the entire place put hands in the air. It was a true testament to Thorn's charisma, magnetism and fiercely-loyal fanbase.
Thorn followed with more songs in the V-Day theme; his playful tune about sharing the same cheating girlfriend with his friend (“She Won't Cheat on Us”), “Love on Me,” “Love Will Find You” and a cover of “Everything's Gonna Be Alright,” which found Thorn soaking up the adoration as he let the crowd belt the last verses all by themselves.
He returned to encore with something very special. Stepping out alone, Thorn set up the story behind the song he’d be playing that, in his youth, "was a life-changing song for me." That was Lionel Richie's “Three Times a Lady”; Thorn confessed that he learned it and played it over and over to one of his first loves, delivering his own distinctive rendition and showing off his fine vocal capabilities.
Paul Thorn keeps his fans well fed with performances that are a feast of positive energy, rocking vibes and heartfelt honesty. It’s no wonder they show up in throngs to see him, and are likely already eagerly awaiting his next Skipper’s visit.