The 15 minutes leading up to Gavin DeGraw’s arrival were filled with exasperated queries (“Where is that boy?” and “He should be here by now”) from the bar’s manager. Friends and devoted listeners began eyeing the front door and checking their watches at regular intervals when he slid in—almost unnoticed—and made straight for the piano with a leather-bound notebook tucked under his arm. He shot the shit with the audience while scribbling out a set list, as if the inspiration from one were driving the other, then made for a table to greet his parents, who usually show up for his weekly gigs.

He took his seat at the piano and nodded to his guitarist, Oz Noy, and a hush fell over the diners, the drinkers, and the drifters without seats. But the moment of theatrical silence was broken by, well . . . try to imagine a 23-year-old white guy with long blond hair bellowing out the best live rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” you’ve ever heard. DeGraw’s voice is oddly full of pain and anguish for someone so young—which is perhaps what lends credence to his cover of the soulful plea. Or maybe it’s his ability to put out that intangible vibe of sexuality that lingers in the air whenever the original is played. Sitting next to him is Noy, who’s so good on guitar he makes you want to throw yours out. His slide technique and blues-based scales leave you wishing he’d shown off a little more.

DeGraw’s been at the piano for 14 years, and he writes songs rooted in blues about life and love and meeting a girl at Starbucks that you really dig before remembering you already have someone back home. His honest voice has a raspy hard-luck edge that makes you take every word he sings as truth. The stories come across as artful renditions of the everyday; you believe them because you know they’re true for yourself.

In between sets, DeGraw floats around the restaurant like a man in space on a leash, only to be pulled back to base when it’s time to do his thing. “What I don’t let out in life, I let out in the tune,” he explains. “Whether I’m playing here or in my living room, I’m gonna be playing.” It’s unlikely the years to come will find him hunched over a Casio keyboard in his parents’ basement. Like one guy at the bar said, “That’s the whitest black guy I’ve ever seen.”