Kevin Cavanaugh at the Caliph
By Sue Gathman
“So if there’s something you’d like to try / if there’s something you’d like to try / ask me, I won’t say no, how could I?” The chorus of the Smiths’ Ask beckoned me into the Caliph, a venerable old dive bar – but a piano dive bar! – on 5th and Redwood in Bankers Hill. Wednesdays from 9 pm to midnight, the Caliph hosts Wednesdays with Moz, featuring pianist Kevin Cavanaugh, formerly heard at Morrissey Mondays at the Riviera Supper Club in La Mesa. With happy hour drink specials, free snacks, a convivial crowd and enough table space to spread out your homework, the Caliph is a quirky, pleasant little oasis just around the corner from Balboa Park.
Kevin is a consummate entertainer, chatting with regulars, befriending newcomers, fielding hecklers and taking requests. The twist here is that his entire set is Smiths-based. If you aren’t already a fan of the 80’s alt-rock heroes, whose generic name and plain appearance belie complex, mordantly funny lyrics and gorgeous vocals over a driving, jangly guitar, Kevin’s tribute will surely draw you in. And if you’re already a fan, you will find yourself in good company. Recently, I found myself at the piano bar, sandwiched between a group of what Little Edie would call staunch characters: a pair of hipsters, a Scottish expat nursing a chi-chi, an earnest couple in Birkenstocks, and a man about to celebrate his 80th birthday, all of us singing along lustily to “Shoplifters of the World Unite”. So many of us who love the Smiths share frontman Morrissey’s self-deprecating mindset – “for once in my life, let me get what I want / Lord knows it would be the first time” – and the idea of belting out these tunes in a room full of kindred spirits is both compelling and bizarre.
In two long, energetic sets, Kevin covered most of the Smiths’ discography, plus a good selection of Morrissey’s post-Smiths solo work, while regaling the crowd with a story of meeting the enigmatic singer when he was filming the Suedehead video on a family friend’s farm. Some highlights included the infectious Panic, an especially flirty This Charming Man (the opening lyrics, “Punctured bicycle / on a hillside desolate” inspiring a crowd-pleasing story about learning how to change a tire), darkly romantic There’s A Light And It Never Goes Out, and a rollicking A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours – which, being a good illustration of the doctrine of adverse possession, fully justifies going to a piano bar on a school night.
The melodic, almost symphonic nature of the Smiths music lends itself well to a piano arrangement, and Kevin mainly plays it straight, with warm, lounge-tinged vocals. This is a straight-up tribute to a singer he loves, rather than an arch, Richard-Cheese-style lounge treatment, but at the same time, Kevin doesn’t take himself or the material too seriously. I dare you to sit through a set without tapping your foot – or more likely, surreptitiously Googling the lyrics so you can sing along.