Justin Utley (The Rialto Theatre, Brighton)
Given his background, to describe Justin Utley’s music as “a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll” (to quote the Donny and Marie Osmond hit) might almost be thought an insult.
The hunky singer/songwriter from Utah very publicly ‘self-excommunicated’ himself from the Mormon church after enduring its ex-gay conversion therapy following two years of mission service. The resulting performer is a world away from Mormonism’s famous Osmond family, with clean-cut toothy smiles replaced by rough edges and a down to earth reality.
Out and proud, Justin Utley remains a man on a mission, with activism for civil rights and LGBTQ equality firmly on the agenda. Unsurprisingly, this dedication is found in his music but these are not so much songs of protest as songs about real lives being lived in a real world.
Making his first –and well overdue – visit to Brighton, Justin generously pledged half of the amount raised by ticket sales to the Hand In Hand National UK/Ireland LGBT Choral Festival taking place in the city in the summer.
It would be fair to say that many male members of the eager audience drooled, won over instantly by beefy good looks and a genuine charm. But the music and performance was also savoured, with a strong voice belting out original songs and covers with passion.
The immediately likeable personality allows for some daring when it comes to choice of songs. Undoubtedly, numbers such as the acclaimed Stand for Something pack a punch musically and lyrically with the message of standing up for what you believe but as he sings you sense Justin Utley is investing more in the performance than simply what makes a good song – these are songs that tell his story, react against the bad and encourage the positive.
The stories behind many of the songs are as interesting as the music is catchy: Goodbye, Goodbye, for example, is written and sung with a deep understanding following a brief and far from affirming foray into relationships with the opposite sex (“You should never make someone a priority if they’re only considering you an option,” he says by way of introduction). The deeply personal references continue in the more obviously country tones of It Is What It Is and the rock beat of the heartfelt Great Escape.
As well as the self-penned songs there are a few great covers (preparing the ground for a hoped-for covers album in future) with the likes of Cyndi Lauper being given fresh treatments.
Some of the songs are accompanied by Justin strumming the guitar, others at the keyboard, with a few backing tracks adding weight from time to time.
If Brighton bears were enticed in to this concert persuaded more by Justin Utley being drop dead gorgeous, they undoubtedly left inspired, challenged and affirmed by a beautiful, affable, charismatic and engaging performer who can’t come back too soon.