On Saturday, May 18, St. Cyprian’s Church in San Francisco became an unlikely hot spot, as a line snaked out the back door. When singer-songwriter Bhi Bhiman took the stage, looking polished in a black suit and tie, cheers echoed off the vaulted ceiling. Bhiman’s hometown fans haven’t had many opportunities to see him perform in the past year. Since the 2012 release of his well-regarded Americana album, Bhiman, he has performed at a Prince tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, appeared on one of Britain’s most popular talk shows, and, most recently, played a sold-out Scandinavian tour with Roseanne Cash. This summer, Bhiman will also be among the few local artists playing Outside Lands.
The St. Cyprian’s show marked the release of his EP, Substitute Preacher — acoustic covers of Seventies and Eighties rock hits by Dire Straits, Tom Petty, Talking Heads, The Police, Dio, and AC/DC. Bhiman affectionately refers to the selection as the Golden Era of Shit — a thematic shift from his previous two records, whose lyrics are mostly character-driven narratives with a global consciousness, sung in the style of the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll and blues.
The amazing thing about Bhiman is that no matter what he plays — a slow, yearning version of “Wild Thing”; a sweet but somber homage to Huey P. Newton, “Up in Arms”; the comic polemic “White Man’s Burden Blues”; or his deeply melodic hit “Guttersnipe” — his singing is beautiful. The man has an unforgettable voice: a rich, sustained tenor that coaxes and comforts as it smoothly rises and falls. Now thirty, Bhiman has been developing his voice for the past ten years, but it sounds like the voice of someone with a lifetime of stories to tell.
Before the St. Cyprian’s show, Bhiman, who moved from St. Louis to the Bay Area in 2000, sat in the small greenroom with a sweeping view of Buena Vista and Corona parks behind him, occasionally striking his guitar strings. He spoke openly about the strain of touring, the challenge of songwriting, and the loneliness of being a solo artist, but when he came on stage, he seemed completely at home, his shy demeanor slipping away and his subtle but deft sense of humor taking over. He thanked an audience member for a sneeze, and wondered aloud how much of the concert his dad could film on his iPhone.
Bhiman picked up his brother’s classical guitar at age seven, initially inspired to become a musician by Michael Jackson, Slash, and Michael J. Fox’s imitation of Chuck Berry in Back to the Future. “I was really bad,” Bhiman said with a laugh. “I mean it hurts your fingers to play the guitar, it’s awful in the beginning, but I just stuck with it.” As he grew up, his later influences varied from Sly and the Family Stone to Soundgarden.
His first album, The Cookbook, encompassed a little of every style that has influenced the young songwriter — blues, rock ‘n’ roll, country, and funk. “It was too much, too many horns, too much production. I didn’t think I’d get a shot to do anything else,” Bhiman said. The songs from The Cookbook also have more outwardly political themes, and while the lyrics on his second album, Bhiman, maintain the first-person delivery, they offer more subtle narratives — the story of a North Korean factory worker and a perennial train-riding vagabond, among them.
“I’m really proud of my politically aware songs, because I came up in the school of social consciousness, having something to say,” Bhiman said. “But at the same time, I don’t like to have every song on my album be a message, because I think that’s overdoing it.” While writing Bhiman, the songwriter also strove for more musicality and cohesion, recording only acoustic songs and listening to Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan for inspiration.
It turns out, Bhiman does well when it’s just him and a guitar. In fact, when he performed “When Doves Cry” at the Prince tribute at Carnegie Hall in April, sharing a bill with D’Angelo and Chris Rock, he turned down the chance to have The Roots be his backing band. “I tried to work out the song but it would have been forced to have Questlove play or anybody play,” he said. “But everyone else that night was playing loud, funky songs, so it was kind of cool to buck the trend.”
Bhiman reprised the haunting solo performance of “When Doves Cry” at St. Cyprian’s, along with a few other songs that didn’t make the cut for Substitute Preacher: The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl,” backed by drums and piano; a fingerpicked version of Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There”; plus tracks from Bhiman like the R&B-style ballad “Eye on You.” Cheers exploded from the back of the church when Bhiman began a melodic, soulful version of Dio’s glam-rock anthem “Rainbow in the Dark” from Substitute Preacher, and when he played Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” during his encore, in which he coached the crowd to whistle along with the chorus.
He said he chooses well-known hits to cover as a way to draw the audience in. “I could play deep cuts, but that would be more for me, not for everyone else,” he said.” He tried out three or four different arrangements for each song on Substitute Preacher before settling on one, often slowing the songs way down in the style of Ray Charles and Nina Simone. “That’s my trick,” Bhiman said. “For the vocals, it’s perfect. You can completely wash over the entire song, but it’s still emotional, and it still works.”
Some fans at the show, like brothers Che and Mike Prasad, who first saw Bhiman a few months ago when he opened for Taj Mahal at The Independent, are drawn to him for more than just his impressive vocals. Che Prasad, also an acoustic guitarist playing in a “broken-down-Americana” style, explained Bhiman’s appeal: “We’re half-Indian, so seeing Bhi Bhiman as a successful singer-songwriter inspired us to start recording our own music.” Bhiman, who is of Sri Lankan Tamil descent and whose parents emigrated to the United States in 1969, sees Asian musicians as having more odds to overcome, particularly as solo artists.
“I’d hope that if a South Asian kid saw me, he’d be like, ‘cool,'” Bhiman said.
Though he already has an album’s worth of songs written for his next release, Bhiman said he’d like to move into writing songs for other artists, as well. “Writing for someone else is fun because you don’t have to worry about your own hang-ups,” said Bhiman, who was headed to Atlanta shortly after his record release show to work with iconic soul singer and songwriter William Bell, a founding member of the Stax record label and a contemporary of Otis Redding. Bhiman said he had already written a few songs for Bell, but admitted: “He listened to my album and was like, ‘It’s alright, but how’s this guy gonna help me?'” A few days later Bhiman tweeted out a picture of him and Bell, grinning side-by-side.
Update: A previous version of this article misquoted Bhiman.