TV gives Tim Hockenberry his big break

Even though Tim Hockenberry has played the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in downtown Mill Valley more times than anybody can remember, it's unlikely the local singer-songwriter ever performed in front of an audience as enthusiastic as the one that greeted him there Saturday night.

They hooted. They hollered. And when he got around to performing his perfectly gritty cover of "You Are So Beautiful," the Joe Cocker single that earned him a spot on the most popular summer series on television, "America's Got Talent," they basically lost it.

"This is a lot of work," Hockenberry told the crowd, sweat soaking through his shirt. "But it's better than stealing."

He may have been kidding.

Hockenberry, who has been incredibly candid about his struggles as a recovering alcoholic, booked the sold-out Mill Valley concert long before he wowed judges Howard SternSharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel - as well as 14 million viewers - to become a semifinalist on the NBC talent competition. But it gave his longtime fans the opportunity to cheer him on toward a much-needed $1 million prize and a headlining slot on a 25-city national tour.

"I just got a text message from the bank saying I have negative $83 in my account," said Hockenberry, who is 50, in an interview the day before the Mill Valley show.

A veteran of the Bay Area nightclub scene, the earnest singer with the distinctly gruff voice has been waiting for a break like this for years. Despite releasing four albums (including one with a major label), playing holiday arena shows as a member of Trans-Siberian Orchestraand holding residencies at local venues such as the Rrazz Room and the Broadway Grill in Burlingame, success - stability, even - has remained elusive.

"I'm usually just one gig away from being homeless," said the father of four, holding his 6-month-old daughter, Sonia Ray, with girlfriend Bronwyn Chovel.

It's not that he has trouble finding work. Hockenberry spent the first part of the year touring with the Mickey Hart Band, singing and playing the trombone. But the experience wore him down more than he expected. "It was 14 people on a bus that slept 12," he said. "And I missed my family too much."

In fact, it was his 9-year-old daughter, Lola, who persuaded him to try out for "America's Got Talent" when auditions came to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco in February. Hockenberry went along, not expecting much and not entirely sure what he was getting into.

"Having not owned a TV for years, I'm sort of out of it," he said. "I think I saw the first season of 'American Idol.' That was my only reference going in. I didn't think that anybody would be interested in the old guy doing yesterday's hits."

On the contrary, the judges were floored by his no-holds-barred performance of "You Are So Beautiful," advancing him to the next round where he worked his magic again with a snippet of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed." Mandel told him flatly, "Sir, your life is about to change." Even Stern raved.

"It was like the universe telling me I can get off the bus and survive in one piece," Hockenberry said.

His generous two-hour show at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre, where he returns Aug. 12 before heading out on the "America's Got Talent" arena tour, was a testament to his determination. Performing with guitarist Tal Morris and drummer Vince Littleton, who offset his raspy voice with soft jazz notes, Hockenberry took on a disparate set of covers - everything from Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and Stevie Wonder's "All in Love Is Fair" to a slow-motion take on Rihanna's "Umbrella" - making each his own.

Judging by the reaction in the room, it was his cover of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" - with its lines like "How does it feel/ To be on your own/ With no direction home/ Like a complete unknown" - that, should he choose to bust it out on national television, could be his secret weapon in the competition.

Hockenberry has discussed his substance abuse problems on "America's Got Talent," even though some critics have accused him of playing up his sob story for dramatic effect. "There are public records that can show I've made an ass of myself for years and years," he shrugged. "If it helps somebody else, I'm all about it."

Either way, he sounds at once weary and bemused by his changing fortunes, even if it hasn't quite helped him pay the rent just yet.

If his streak continues, he won't have to worry about filling his old haunts for the next few months. But there is one drawback: "The bad news is I can never do any gigs where I play for less than 14 million people again," he said.

Well, maybe just one more.

Aidin Vaziri
SF Gate

Sunday, July 22, 2012