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Back on the beat: Glenn Tilbrook at City Winery

Photo Credit: No use without hyperlink
Photo Credit: No use without hyperlink
Photo Credit: No use without hyperlink

Glenn Tilbrook is such a natural crowd pleaser that I felt completely at ease calling for “Messed Around Wednesday night at City Winery — only to have the former Squeeze frontman smile and immediately tear into it as if he’d planned to all along.

Glenn Tilbrook / CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM PHOTOS (No use without hyperlink)

I was hesitant at first because of the song’s guitar break. But all through his raucous, sold-out show, Tilbrook flashed nasty chops on both the six- and 12-strings. Messed Around was no exception.

With such a rich, deep catalog to pull from, Tilbrook didn’t disappoint — from “Take Me I’m Yours, Goodbye Girl and other early favorites through If I Didn’t Love You and other at-their-peak tunes to Annie Get Your Gun, one of Squeeze’s last hurrahs.

In a shark-skin suit and polka-dot ascot, Tilbrook unwrapped some lesser-known Squeeze gems, such as Tongue Like a Knife, from Sweets for a Stranger, the haunting 1974 B-side, Introvert, the strikingly gorgeous Tough Love, from 1987’s Babylon On and On,” and The Truth, from the 1991 LP Play.

Engaging and enthusiastic throughout, he mixed in some entertaining covers: Cat Stevens’
Wild World, Smiley Lewis’s I Hear You Knockin’, and Tom T. Hall’s Harper Valley P.T.A. (!) among them. The crowd went wild for “Sugar Sugar.”

If you’ve seen him before, you know that the audience plays a big part in Tilbrook’s shows. I remember a Maxwell’s gig some years back when he didn’t sing a single word of Tempted. The gathering flawlessly handled every verse, along with the choruses, to the point that Tilbrook eventually waded into the middle of the floor, strumming his guitar.

He left nothing to chance with Squeeze’s first hit single this time, closing the regular portion of his intermission-split show by singing it through, as the crowd filled in on background vocals.

Thank you, gospel singers, Tilbrook said, after the packed house hit its parts on Black Coffee in Bed, with the man who last year climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to help raise money for cancer research lustily stroking his red 12-string.

Striking the hot iron, he swung into Is That Love? with the full-throated choir joining the ride. Then came Slap and Tickle, one of several early Squeeze tunes, and another full-crowd sing-along on Can’t Buy Me Love.

You can imagine Tilbrook doing any number of Beatles tunes. But on this night, with such an upbeat vibe, his choice was ideal — and yes, he plucked the George Harrison lead to perfection.

Those who recognize Squeeze’s place in pop history don’t need me to tell them the response Up the Junction got. And who could argue with the encore: Vanity Fair,” Another Nail in My Heart, and Pulling Mussels From a Shell.

Some artists stubbornly want to play what they want to play — and that’s fine. Tilbrook mixed in some solo work, including
This Is Where You Ain’t, written when his children were living with their mother in Australia (they’re with him now, he said, proudly), and The Best of Times.

Still, sometimes a human jukebox, particularly one so gifted — and giving — can make a night magical.

Sure, it wasn’t the Squeeze With Strings benefit (minus Jools Holland) at London’s Royal Albert Hall for the Teenage Cancer Trust last month ( You should’ve been there,” Tilbrook told the crowd. We had a full stringed orchestra “). Or the 22-date tour that Squeeze did last year.

But there at New York City’s premiere intimate venue, the guitar man found another smile after smile for many faces.

Who knows what’s next? Squeeze has several summer gigs booked across the pond. Given Tilbrook’s downtown reception Wednesday night — and his frequent mentions of former partner Chris Difford — they just might make it back to the States.

For now, your best shot is scalping outside a sold-out Maxwell’s Friday night. Tilbrook’s also in Philly tonight before heading back east to Hoboken.

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