Taking center stage at the Balboa Theatre, acoustic guitar in hand, a sold-out audience before him, James Keogh -- better known as Vance Joy -- looked like he’d be at home as a camp counselor in a Wes Anderson film. He’s got that kind, bright-eyed, doey look about him, evident even from the back of a theater of screaming girls and a few fist-pumping dudes. A sweet graciousness and total lack of pretense plays across his entire face. You kinda just want to love him. And on Feb. 29, San Diego did.
More than just looking the camp-counselor part, the Australian singer/songwriter is perhaps a born storyteller, incorporating into his performance anecdotes and tiny song-biographies between nearly every number. He opened on “Mess Is Mine,” just one of seven singles from his widely popular 2014 debut studio release.
“San Diego, it’s good to see you,” he said as shrieks from the crowd dimmed. “Thank you for filling out this beautiful theater.”
He poured across a stacked catalog of hits, the long-distance love and high notes of “Red Eye” and open-mic throwback “Winds of Change” played with familiar fingers into an eager audience, the stage lights dimming and dancing along fantastically with his voice.
Breaking after “Straight Into Your Arms,” he addressed the audience again with increasing candor to share how his day in San Diego had been. “I blew the dust off my skateboard. It’d been gathering some dust since 1998,” he joked, adding that he’s not the best skater, which is why he tracked down a place where no one would see him bunk a kickflip. But even there he said he was found out -- an older woman reprimanded him for skating on public property.
Retelling the story with palpable pride in being seen as a badass appeared to energize the musician, as the rest of his set was packed with more -- aplomb? Courage? Or perhaps it just made him more present, not acting his way through a set, but actually being there for it. Either way, the difference was tangible as he went into “From Afar” and then “Wasted Time” before debuting his ukulele skills for a track from his 2013 EP, “God Loves You When You’re Dancing.” A song originally written for piano, “Play With Fire” was reworked for the uke because, Joy joked before being bathed in hot red and yellow lights, pianos don’t exactly make for easy international travel.
He also played his EP’s lullaby, “Emmylou,” crowd-pleaser “Georgia” and “Best That I Can” before pulling out the first song of his that became a hit in America, something he was well aware of as he asked people to sing along just before playing the opening notes of “Riptide.”
He ended his main set with a dancey cover of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” the two-man horn section behind him finally being cast in the spotlight. The delightfully unexpected rendition swept the singer and his band right off the stage.
He didn’t make fans wait for long for an encore, however, and came back out solo to tell the backstory of “My Kind of Man,” which he said was inspired by Facebook -- and he was only half kidding. Joy ended the night on current radio darling “Fire and the Flood,” his quakey clear voice hanging out above the outstretched arms of a delighted crowd who received nearly every track Joy has released to date.
Mess Is Mine
Winds of Change
All I Ever Wanted
Straight Into Your Arms
Play With Fire
Best That I Can
You Can Call Me Al (Paul Simon cover)
My Kind of Man
Fire and the Flood
Hannah Lott-Schwartz, a San Diego native, moved back to the area after working the magazine-publishing scene in Boston. Now she’s straight trolling SD for all the music she missed while away. Want to help? Hit her up with just about anything at all over on Twitter, where -- though not always work-appropriate -- she means well.