An Ecstatic, Celebratory New York Debut by the Jones Family Singers
Texas gospel family band the Jones Family Singers‘ new album The Spirit Speaks positions them as a gospel version of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, more or less. Which they can be, and makes them a lot of fun, to say the least. Their New York debut at Lincoln Center Wednesday night revealed that’s only a small part of the package. “People say, ‘You could play rock music, and be stars,'” frontwoman Alexis Jones told the mostly sold-out crowd, a mix of Harlem and Brooklyn churchgoers and neighborhood people. Without a pause, she offered a righteous response.. “We do play rock n roll. We’re rocking for Jesus!”
And from there the group launched into an ecstatic vamp that would have been perfectly at home in the most ornately arranged Harlem or Brooklyn gospel tabernacle. The five women, her cousins, singing harmonies along with her, stepped and twirled with the bouncy beat as her brother Fred Allen Jones Jr. played some of the most exhilarating, eclectic guitar anybody’s played on a big stage in this city this year. Moving methodically from big, expansive soul/jazz chords to sizzling Freddie King-inspired blues clusters, to Motown and Stax-Volt and even a little metal, he would have stolen the show if not for his sister. Their debonair father, Bishop Fred Jones channeled Wilson Pickett, blurring the line between the sacred and the secular with a come-hither growl, “Say it again!” as he punctuated a clever remake of the hauntingly imagistic gospel classic Bones in the Valley. Behind them, bassist Kenneth Jones held down a fat, booming low end in tandem with the twin drummers (one on congas and a standup percussion kit, the other playing his kit behind a plexiglass shield) for a double-barreled propulsive boost.
And with her insistent, no-nonsense alto delivery, like Tina Turner and Mahalia Jackson wrapped into one, Alexis Jones left no doubt that this was a party. Even the band’s two gritty minor-key Texas blues tunes were far less angst-ridden laments than celebrations. Encompassing a hundred years of African-American gospel inspiration, the band worked the crowd up into a sweat and got everybody on their feet in a joyous call-and-response, through long, hypnotically crescendoing two-chord jams punctuated by the split-second timing of the harmony singers, towering, suspenseful swells building to mighty peaks. Surprisingly, their set incorporated a lot less of the oldschool soul tunesmithing that’s on the new album.
The guitarist came front and center for the blues as well as for some unexpected but period-perfect metal-tinged, Fame-style 80s anthems. One of the backup singers, as well as the group’s matriarch, Sarah M. Jones, each got to take a turn out front toward the end of the show (high voices are not this band’s distinguishing feature: they have a deep sound and obviously like it that way). And for a few striking seconds, mid-song, Bishop Fred Jones hinted at the speaking-in-tongues ecstasy that the group’s Pentecostal Church of God in Christ has been known to inspire. In an era where organized religion is so often employed as a means to divide and conquer, it was inspiring to say the least to hear such an indomitable message of love and unity and resilience in the face of hardship (Markham, Texas, the Houston suburb that the band calls home, is not one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods). As Alexis Jones affirmed, “The family that prays together, stays together.”