New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: soul music

In Memoriam: Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died yesterday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 76.

Of all the soul singers to emerge in the 1960s, Franklin was the most electrifying. She could leap from a murmur or the most delicate melisma to a gale-force wail in a split second. She had timing and sophistication to rival any jazz singer, and breathtaking power across a formidable vocal range. A distinctive pianist who played on most of her albums as well as in concert, she incisively and economically blended blues, gospel and jazz.

The daughter of famed Detroit minister Rev. C.L. Franklin, she had a turbulent early life. Her mother died young. A teenage gospel prodigy, Franklin had two children while still in her teens. Turning to secular music, she found adulation from the Ertegun brothers at Atlantic Records and with their promotion behind her, penned and sang some of the 1960s’ most iconic hit records.

Franklin was a down-to-earth Midwesterner more interested in her craft than celebrity. A solidly built, regal presence onstage, she never let anyone encourage her to adopt a waif look. Loyal to a fault, she kept her hometown band of Detroit musicians together long after the point where everyone in the world wanted to play with her.

She was quick to call bullshit on faulty logic. Her brand of pragmatic feminism had more to do with tearing down obstacles in a male-dominated milieu than with any doctrine or theory. She loved spicy food, to the point of keeping a bottle of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt in her purse.

As soul music grew more corporatized, Franklin’s recordings and appearances grew further and further apart. Always an individualist, she didn’t embrace the disco era until it was almost over, and even then, it was a tentative embrace.

Tens of thousands of singers around the world have covered her songs, but none have been able to replicate her fierce command or fearsome vocal technique. Her hit singles, including but hardly limited to Respect, You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman and Chain of Fools have become anthems for generations of women. 

In the summer of 2011, barely two weeks before this blog first went live, its future owner and a friend went out on the Coney Island boardwalk with a pair of binoculars to see Franklin play one of the last outdoor concerts in the space formerly known as Steeplechase Park (which had been bulldozed by Fred Trump in the 1980s). Backed by a full orchestra, Franklin was dealing with a broken foot and as a result played with understandable restraint, choosing her spots both vocally and at the piano.

Late one night a couple of weeks ago, this blog’s owner’s girlfriend chose the perfect soundtrack for winding down after a sweltering evening that had also begun at Coney Island. That playlist was a Franklin concert recording from the 1980s. Of all the spine-tingling devices she employed, the most memorable one was when she stunned both the orchestra and the audience by flying into a verse a split second before it was time, a thrill she just couldn’t wait to deliver. She is greatly missed.

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State-of-the-Art Americana Jamband Rock to Close Out This Year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival

Margo Price dropped a bombshell at Lincoln Center a couple nights ago. Taking her only turn of the evening at the piano for the Lennonesque ballad All American Made, she recalled how by 1987, the world had discovered that “Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran.” To any student of American history, the October Surprise and the Iran-Contra affair are old news. But for a self-described Midwest farmer’s daughter to mention the ugly truth about that President – who despite every shred of evidence remains a hero throughout parts of that world – it was a radical move.

As the song goes, it wasn’t the first time something like that has happened, and it won’t be the last. And the current blitzkrieg against immigrants makes her want to run for the border. That was Price’s only unvarnished political song in a set of high quality, deep-fried southern jamband rock. Unsurprisingly, it was also the number that drew the loudest roars of appreciation from a crowd who’d braved the threat of a torrential downpour to come out to see her.

Price’s music seems to be contrived to appeal to every single potential audience member on the summer festival circuit. As a fierce frontwoman with a big wail that with a few nuanced tweaks works equally well in classic honkytonk, 60s soul and bluesy rock, Price delivers for the ladies. The six hairy dudes working up a sweat behind her seem like they’d be just as much at home in many other styles beyond choogilng four-on-the-floor rock. The best and most epic of the big psychedelic numbers, Cocaine Cowboy, featured long interludes for Jamie Davis’ stinging electric blues guitar, Luke Schneider’s searing, noisy pedal steel  and the night’s most nebulous break, where keyboardist Micah Hulscher abandoned his judicious Rhodes chords for swirls and dips of string synth straight out of the early Genesis playbook – to the point where band members were exchanging “where the hell are we” grins with each other.

Price went behind a second drumkit for that one. She knows what she’s doing back there, and she flurried up a storm when she played acoustic guitar – which she did throughout the majority of a long set. She stayed behind that kit for the song after that, a wryly undulating take of the Grateful Dead’s Casey Jones, which the band ended with an irresistibly amusing stampede out. It never hurts to know your subject matter.

The rest of the show ranged from careening electric honkytonk numbers like Paper Cowboy and Put a Hurting on the Bottle – with spot-on detours into George Jones and Willie Nelson classics – along with a defiant,snarlingly amped oldschool C&W breakup ballad. The covers were a mixed bag: the band found soul-infused redemption for Tom Petty but could not do the same for Melanie Safka or Dolly Parton’s disco era. Throughout the night, individual band members kept solos short and sweet, often trading off, up to mighty peaks or descents toward suspense. Most of the crowd who’d stuck around gathered down at the front; at the end of the show, Price rewarded them by flinging roses from a big bouquet into the crowd, one by one.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real were a hard act to follow. It’s hardly an overstatement to rank Nelson alongside fellow Texas blues greats like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Freddie King. Yet Nelson kept his guitar solos much more concise than either of those two hotheads – maybe because he’d learned that trick playing with another great Texas guitarslinger, his dad Willie. This band is excellent: bassist Corey McCormick was a spring-loaded presence throughout the set and made his one long solo count, hard. Drummer Anthony LoGerfo swung like crazy alongside conguero Tato Melgar, and organist/pianist Jesse Siebenberg doubled on second guitar and lapsteel as well.

They opened with the spaciest number of the night, a multi-part epic about aliens that veered from post Neil Young electric intensity to echoes of Pink Floyd during a long, starry interlude. From there they blended oldschool soul, Texas shuffles and stark red dirt folk with a surreal humor that brought to mind Nelson’s famous dad as much as the vocals did. Yet Lukas Nelson’s voice is a lot bigger, even if he has that signature twang.

They brought the lights down for a pensive, solo acoustic take of Just Outside of Austin?and then what seemed like a rewrite of Gentle on My Mind – the younger Nelson clearly has just as much of a thing for classic Nashville songwriting as his dad. After a slight return to Led Zep-influenced riff-rock, Nelson encored with a brand-new acoustic number where he resolved to “turn off the news and build a garden.” Clearly, Price wasn’t the only populist on this bill.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors may be done for 2018, but there’s the annual Brooklyn Americana Festival, taking place all over Dumbo Sept 20-23, to look forward to.

Mavis Staples Throws a Party For Our Right to Fight at Lincoln Center

By the time Mavis Staples had launched into her second catchy, singalong soul groove at Lincoln Center Out of Doors last night, she was already referencing economic deprivation and political exploitation. At least half of the crowd were on their feet, dancing and swaying. Her voice has weathered over the years, but her message and presence have not. The heir to a seven-decade, politically fearless soul music legacy is as relevant today as she was in 1962, when she marched throughout the South with the family patriarch, Pops Staples, and put her life on the line.

One hand, she’s a friendly, down-to-earth Chicagoan. On the other, she carries herself with the gravitas but also the optimism of someone who won a lot of battles back in the day and remains an inspiration to this generation’s freedom fighters. “We live in troubled times,” she mused soberly. But then she grinned. “I’m thinking about going down to Washington,” she announced, to wild applause. “But I’m not going alone. I’m not stupid. I’m bringng my posse!”

“But they’d just throw me out. ‘You’re not from here, you’re from Chicago, go home.’” No doubt that was the reaction of the rednecks who jailed her alongside Martin Luther King, and her dad, who wrote the gospel call-and-response of Freedom Highway for those marchers. Staples sang that one midway through the set, backed by a tight, terse five-piece band with guitar, bass, drums and two passionate, purposeful harmony singers.

They opened with Are You Ready and its “come go with me” mantra, which came across as more of a challenge to join forces against oppression than simply with the rest of the choir. She evoked a similar call-and-response a couple of songs later: “Don’t rock the boat – who told you that?” The line that drew the most thunderous roar from the crowd was when the gentleman on harmony vocals sang, “Take the sheet off your face, boy, it’s a new day now.”

The rest of the set ranged from comfortable 1960s-style two-chord soul/gospel jams, to more energetic funk and some nifty, shifting tempos in a couple of tunes. Along the way, Staples’ alluded to more contemporary issues including but not limited to the blitzkrieg of gentrification and the war on immigrants. At the end of the set, they finally vamped their way through a joyous singalong of the Staples Singers’ 1971 hit I’ll Take You There.

Throughout the show, the band were tight and purposeful, with a couple of surprisingly volcanic, noisy guitar solos from Telecaster player Rick Holstrom, a little snap and pop from Jeff Turmes’ bass toward the end and some acerbic cameos from both harmony vocalists.

Joe Henry opened. He’s a very serious guy, choosing his words carefully as he addressed the crowd. “Every song I write is part Amazing Grace and part Let’s Get It On,” he explained. That description held up throughout his roughly forty-five minutes onstage: he’s the missing link between Leonard Cohen and Wilco. Another reference point was Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, which kept popping up tunewise throughout the show. Playing acoustic guitar, using both standard and open tunings, he led his six-piece band through a breezy set of slow-to-midtempo parlor Americana ballads. It would have been a treat to be able to hear the great Cindy Cashdollar’s diverse lapsteel textures, which more often than not were drowned out by Levon Henry’s sax. More often than not it takes somebody the caliber of Bob Wills to get horns and country-influenced songwriting to work together. 

Lincoln Center Out of Doors winds up tonight, Aug 12 at 7 PM with another collaboration with the Americana Music Association, featuring sets by guitarslinger Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real and country-soul chanteuse Margo Price.

Sublime, Impassioned Oldschool Soul from the War and Treaty

What crazy person would walk out during the best song of the War and Treaty’s ecstatic, joyous, redemptive set in front of a packed house at the Rockwood Tuesday night?

Keep going and you’ll find out. It’s ugly. And that’s too bad, because the music was sublime.

Pianist Michael Trotter and his singer wife Tanya front this oldschool soul unit. Imagine Ike & Tina Turner without the abuse (hard to do, but just try). Built like a linebacker, Michael sings with a gritty, impassioned delivery, so forcefully that his voice creates overtones that crackle through the mix…until he goes way, way up with a literally breathtaking falsetto. Tanya is a powerful singer in her own right: you can tell that she’s immersed herself in Aretha Franklin and other icons from the 60s but doesn’t rip them off. Throughout the set, the two traded lines, and verses, and harmonized, and backed each other up with a near-telepathic chemistry. They could have gone on for twice as long as their roughly fifty minutes onstage and the crowd still would have wanted more.

Trotter may have a hurricane for a voice, but he doesn’t overuse it. Likewise, he played with restraint, clearly a good influence on the rest of the band. The guitarist got only two chances to cut loose with solos, and went for jagged grit rather than metal excess. Likewise, the organist stuck to vast, gospel-influenced chords and washes of sound over a tight, purposeful rhythm section who earned comparisons to the Dap-Kings. The War and Treaty are a time warp straight from 1969. It’s like the hippie excesses of the 70s and the cheesiness afterward never happened.

Even the closest thing in the set to a straight-up rock song, The Healing Tide – the title track from the band’s forthcoming album – echoed the Beatles rather than anything more recent. The rest of the material would start slowly and slowly gather momentum, up to big, stomping choruses that would often suddenly recede again, or stop cold. This kept the audience on their toes – and they loved it.

There’s a bittersweet backstory here. As a soldier in Iraq during the Bush/Cheney war, Michael Trotter wrote his first song on Sadaam Hussein’s piano…or one of them. Trotter was clearly scarred by his wartime experience. In a lengthy address to the audience before the night’s final number, he articulated a fierce commitment to working to bring people together regardless of race…and then entreated everybody to turn to the person next to them and give them a big hug.

Now why would anybody leave during the power, and glory, and passion of the band’s final, majestic anthem? Because the MTA was about to shut down the F train. On one hand, it was great to see such a great turnout for the band, even if the big Rockwood room is only the size of a small club. Let’s just hope everyone got home ok afterward rather than having to go to a plan B or plan C that might not have worked any better than the F that night. Wonder why so many music venues are closing all over town?

The War and Treaty tour continues; lucky Denver residents can see them on August 8 at 9 PM at Globe Hall at 4483 Logan St. Cover is $20.

A Refreshing New Spin on Old Soul Sounds and a Bowery Ballroom Gig from the Individualistic Liz Brasher

The coolest thing about Body of Mine, the opening track on soul singer Liz Brasher’s debut ep Outcast, isn’t the vocals, which have a refreshingly understated angst. Nor is it the song’s purposeful, bluesy tune. It’s how Brasher substitutes her own fuzztone guitar for a smoky baritone sax. Ever since Amy Winehouse and then the late great Sharon Jones springboarded the oldschool soul revival, it seems that every suburban lawyer with money to burn has been getting behind one big-voiced soul woman after another in search of something like cred, and some apocryphal payday in what’s left of an industry they know nothing about. Liz Brasher does not appear to be part of that crowd, because her music doesn’t fit the mold. She’s playing Bowery Ballroom this June 22 at 9 PM; cover is $20. Just be aware that there are two bands on after her and neither one is worth knowing about.

The ep – streaming at Bandcamp – rocks harder than your typical vintage 60s soul ballad collection, and it’s darker and bluesier than any of the frantic American Idol imitators could ever be. Brasher gets that fuzztone going again in the biting minor-key second second track, Come My Way, rising to a swaying, pulsing Tammi Terrell-style crescendo on the chorus and then doubletracking her guitar for extra slash on the way out.

Distorted Nord Electro piano and swirling organ mingle over a stomping, swinging beat in Feel Something. “You copy my moves, you do what you want but everyone knows,” Brasher intones knowingly; there isn’t a single point here where she goes for phony gospel excess.

The title cut is a straight-up garage rock nugget, all catchy fuzztone vamping and tumbling drums. Brasher’s lingering, tremoloing chords underpin distant latin allusions (no surprise considering her Dominican heritage) in the bittersweetly crescendoing Remain. The ep winds up with its most retro cut, Cold Baby, Brasher channeling righteous defiance over a lushly orchestrated bed of strings and organ. She’s got a full-length album due out this summer, which is worth keeping an eye out if you’re into this stuff but don’t have the energy to look that fa-fa-fa to find a soul cliche.

That’s an Elvis Costello quote, by the way.

A Transcendent, Trance-Inducing Night of Psychedelic Indian Soul at Zeshan B’s Lincoln Center Debut

In his Lincoln Center debut last week, Chicago soul singer Zeshan B delivered one of the most rivetingly psychedelic, impassioned, fearlessly relevant performances at any New York venue this year. Introducing the Chicago-born singer/harmonium player and his fantastic band, Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal enthused that he “Encompasses every yummy kind of music there is,” which wasn’t a stretch. In over an hour onstage, he and his slinky, surreal, spot-on four-piece backing band opened with some chill funk, closed with a spine-tingling oldschool soul anthem, in between shifting between new psychedelic arrangements of ancient Indian ghazals, some Bollywood, Sufi balladry, hints of hip-hop and even a couple of sublimely expert detours toward medieval Jewish cantorial music. Is there anything this guy CAN’T sing?

Writer Amy Schiller, ensconced in the front row of the VIP area, quipped that Zeshan B’s brand-new signature style should be called “ghazpel.”

The group’s vampy, impassioned opening number, Breaking Point, rose to a brief guitar solo from the brilliantly incisive Samuel Moesching over the serpentine pulse of bassist Jeremiah Hunt and drummer Greg Artry. The frontman’s harmonium added a trippy, trebly texture, mingling with Rob Clearfield’s blippy electric piano.

Zeshan B isn’t the only brilliant Indian-American singer fronting a psychedelic band – Kamala Sankaram does the same thing in front of the similarly surreal, amazing Bombay Rickey. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else in this hopefully expanding subgenre to channel as much wrenching angst or passion as this guy did with his melismatic baritone. He and the band held the crowd transfixed with their first swaying, gorgeously moody minor-key ghazal, singing in Urdu, rising to an angst-fueled peak, Moesching adding a subtly brooding a wah-wah guitar solo before the bandleader went deep into the grit. Then he went up into the rafters with his powerful falsetto. As he mentioned in passing later in the show, Urdu soul is a real genre. He credited his journalist dad, who reported on African-American music and culture in the 60s and 70s, as a major influence.

The group didn’t waste any time flipping the script, reinventing the Jimmy Cliff ballad Hard Road to Travel as indomitable oldschool Smokey Robinson soul in 12/8 time. Watching a Punjabi-American bring a Jamaican reggae hit full circle, back to its original inspiration, was a real trip; Zeshan B used the outro to air out his falsetto again. A dramatic, mystical invocation that drew on his time as a teenage muezzin at the neighborhood mosque served as the intro to the brisk, anthemic Lonely Man.

Zeshan B has a powerful populist streak. Chicago has been blighted by gentrification almost as devastatingly as New York, and he related how his old neighborhood has been decimated to the point of unrecognizability, just like Williamsburg and Bushwick. He underscored the aftereffects in the longing and nostalgia of a lilting ballad that segued into a slowly crescendoing, echoey interlude. Then with a slow, misty resignation, he and the band built a long launching pad for a big vocal crescendo in Jaane Man, spiced with alternately oscillating and searing Moesching riffage and some wry wah-wah keys from Clearfield.

Zeshan B’s take of Otis Redding’s You Don’t Miss Your Water, just vocals and Clearfield’s piano, took everybody to church. The best song of the night was a brooding minor-key ghazal-rock number, Clearfield’s bitingly trebly keys slithering over a muted swing and Moesching’s jagged accents. Their full-band take of George Perkins’ 1970 cult favorite protest-soul anthem Cryin in the Streets was unexpectedly brief, although the group raised the the rafters with Brown Power, Zeshan B’s affirmation of solidarity among brown-skinned people around the globe. Moesching chopped his chords with a ferocity to match Zeshan B’s insistence that “We ain’t gonna take it no more from the ivory tower – Brown Power!” 

After a stop at Bonnaroo, his next show is a hometown gig on June 22 at 8 PM at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W 111th St. in Chicago; tix are $27. And the next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is tomorrow night, June 7 at 7:30 PM with another fearless firebrand singer and bandleader, Mauritania’s Noura Mint Seymali. Get there early if you’re going. 

A Passionate Lincoln Center Debut By Charismatic Detroit Singer Thornetta Davis

What better place than Lincoln Center for Thornetta Davis, “Detroit’s Queen of the Blues,” to unveil her new horn section? “I just learned about her a year ago and had the great fortune to see her at B.B. King’s,” explained Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez, who programmed Davis’ impassioned, sweaty, unselfconsciously workmanlike performance this past evening.

Since the 80s, Davis’ career has taken a slow, steady upward tangent, to the point where she’s just as popular in Europe as she is in her hometown. Not bad for a woman who, as a single mom back in the 80s, considered herself lucky to be pulling in a couple hundred bucks a week singing with Motor City group the Chisel Brothers. Fronting her eight-piece band –  guitar, five-string bass, keys, drums, congas, tenor sax and trumpet – she put a fresh spin on a popular old sound. 

In just the first two minutes of the opening instrumental, the group swung their way from gritty Fender Rhodes funk into sunnier, trumpet-spiced soul ballad territory. Regal in a sparkly all-black outfit and a serious mane of an afro, brandishing a witchy peacock-feather fan, Davis took the stage with a cool but insistent take of I Gotta Sing the Blues, a pulsing vintage Tina Turner-style anthem. Guitarist Carlton Washington took a jaggedly tasty, clanking early-70s style solo before Davis drove the music upward, cutting loose with her vibrato.

Washington’s lingering chords against the steady thump of the congas lent some noir latin flavor to A Pretty Good Love, Davis reaching to the bottom of her formidable low register at the end. The band hit a no-nonsense vintage Chicago-style blues shuffle in That Don’t Appease Me, Washington’s purist riffage again matching Davis’ defiant delivery. Then his spare Smokey Robinson-like lines mingled with keyboardist Phil Hale’s spare gospel lines in the gorgeous vintage 60s-style soul ballad Am I Just a Shadow.

Hale’s scampering Rhodes added extra funk to When I’m Kissing My Love. “I wrote this song because this brother kept calling me, messing with my head,” Davis explained as the band launched into the slow, simmering blues ballad I’d Rather Be Alone. “That key in your hand don’t unlock my door,” she cautioned, building to a slow, impassioned peak along with the horns, Hale’s slinky, purist electric piano. and Washington’s shivery vibrato-toned lines. She brought it down at the end with a sly series of disses for a guy who’s too full of himself for his own good.

They got funky again with I Need a Whole Lotta Lovin to Satisfy Me – by this point, the dancefloor in front of the stage had filled up, kids on the Broadway side of the room, oldsters closer to the doors on Columbus Avenue. The the group ripped through the blues classic Further On Up the Road, Washington bobbing and weaving between the horns. 

Washington saved the night’s most intense pyrotechnics for a long solo in the lush ballad after that. “We need prayer every time we can get it in, especially these days,” Davis mused, introducing an elegantly fervent version of the B.B. King classic Please Send Me Someone to Love. She shimmied and took a couple of leaps to kick off the swinging shuffle Get Up and Dance Away Your Blues. After a Memphis-tinged take of Honest Woman, the optimistically swaying title track from her latest album, she closed with I Believe, a simmering, slide guitar-driven roadhouse blues.

In an era where the blues has become a legacy style, like bluegrass and roots reggae – and a lot of bands play it like it’s an artifact in a museum – Davis and her band are a blast of fresh air.

One particularly enticing, upcoming free concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space just north of 62nd St. on Broadway is on May 31 at 7:30 PM with charismatic crooner Zeshan B “doing Memphis blues with a little Pakistani feel,” as Benitez put it. Get there early if you’re going.

Edgy, Danceable B3 Grooves From the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio

Seattle band the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio are akin to Booker T & the MG’s with more of a guitar-oriented, often darkly cinematic focus. These irrepressible, constantly touring groovemeisters are bringing their party to the big room at the Rockwood this April 18 at 10:30 PM; cover is $15.

Their latest album Close But No Cigar – streaming at Spotify – bubbles and simmers with influences from a half-century of soul, funk and groove: these three guys live for throwing riffs back and forth, whether original ones, or hooks from obscure 1960s singles. The record opens with the title track, a catchy strut that’s like a mashup of the Meters and early James Brown, the bandleader’s subtly tremoloing organ contrasting with guitarist Jimmy James’  sharp funk lines over drummer David McGraw’s edgy snare hits and snowstorm cymbals. James’ wry, warpy, tone-bending guitar solo midway through is irresistibly fun.

Little Booker T is a self-effacing title for a slow but purposefully swaying soul groove driven by snarling guitar that shifts between distorted, staccato rhythm and big expansive chords, in contrast to Lamarr’s suammery fills and pulses. Ain’t It Funky Now is truth in advertising, a vintage JB’s-style slink. As with a lot these tracks, the organ and guitar switch up roles, between melody and rhythm, a trick most B3 bands use too infrequently. James indulges in some twangy blues over Lamarr’s leadfoot stomp midway through.

James vamps on an edgy 70s soul-jazz riff and variations in Close But No Cigar. Memphis – a Lamarr tune, not a cover – is another vampy number, Lamarr and James casually trading licks, with a couple of bluesy organ solos punctuating the interplay. Al Greenery – these guys are good with titles – is closer to the gritty noir cinematics of the City Champs than Rev. Green, bristling with wide-angle minor-key guitar over Lamarr’s slithery lines. Likewise, James’ serpentine, sparkly Marv Tarplin-ish lines propel Can I Change My Mind.

The no-nonsense strut Between the Mayo and the Mustard falls somewhere between Jimmy Smith, Booker T and the Meters, with a big powerful chorus packed with tense echo phrases – you can almost hear the horns. Raymond Brings the Greens bursts and pulses with oldschool soul-funk flavor; it’s the album’s funniest track. The trio wind it up with their only cover, a slow, simmering, heavily camouflaged take of the Burt Bacharach classic Walk On By

Oh yeah – you can dance to all this.

At 72, Soul Survivor Bettye LaVette Releases Her Best Album At a Sold-Out Show at City Winery

Friday night at City Winery, soul music legend Bettye LaVette bragged that she was the oldest living artist with a new record deal. She joked with the sold-out crowd, explaining that at 72, she’s at the point where she needs a cheat sheet – except that onstage, she can barely read the thing. But she’s never sung better, nor has she had such a great band behind her. It was a shattering performance by someone who’s dedicated herself to transcendence probably more for simple survival than as a career strategy.

LaVette was the first of a long line of soul music rediscoveries back in the 90s, rising from near destitution in Detroit to a level of popularity that had eluded her since a promising start as a teenager in the 1960s.  Most recently, a member of her inner circle had floated the idea that she should do an album of Bob Dylan covers. That took shape with her latest release, Things Have Changed, streaming at youtube. A cynic would say that it’s the kind of last-ditch stunt a cash-starved label would pull, recycling whatever they have left in the vaults that still might generate any income. Yet LaVette reinvents these tunes, many of them on the obscure side, as the guy who wrote them never could. As Dylan cover albums go, the only two that rank alongside this one are Mary Lee’s Corvette’s thrilling, chilling live performance of Blood on the Tracks, and The Byrds Play Dylan.

The band behind LaVette had brilliance to match LaVette’s gritty, simmeringly impassioned vocals. Guitarist Brett Lucas was more slash than flash with his purist, pristine minor-key blues licks. Bassist James Simonson and drummer Darryl Pierce switched from swing to lowdown slink. Keyboardist Evan Mercier shifted between deep echoey shadows from his electric piano, to moody washes of organ.

LaVette didn’t waste time bringing the blue-flame intensity to redline with the album’s title track, stalking along over reverbtoned electric piano and Lucas’ minor-key surgical incisions. In her hands, “I’m locked in tight and I’m way out of range” took on as many meanings as its author possibly could have intended. Later in the set, the syncopated tension of The Times They Are A-Changin’ underscored the sudden relevance that song’s taken on since the fateful 2016 Presidential election. LaVette also mined new depths in a defiantly strutting version of Ain’t Talkin, a surreal travelogue in a world that grows ever more “mysterious and vague.”

The rest of the set followed a dynamic, up-and-down arc, from Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight – reinvented as Lou Reed soul by way of Karla Rose, maybe – to the Rhodesy, bluesy Seeing the Real You At Last, with a resolute backbeat drive as Steve Wynn could have done it.

Lucas and Simonson joined forces with suspenseful downward chromatic riffage to punctuate Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others) as LaVette channeled distant venom, yet held back from fullscale drama: she knows to always leave you wanting more. She explained that it had taken her a couple of bottles of champagne to get a handle on how to sing Emotionally Yours – but also that the song had made her cry. She encored with her one original of the night,  Before the Money Came, a brisk career retrospective that was surprisingly much more sweet than bitter, the band giving it a summery Memphis groove.

LaVette’s current tour continues; lucky Oregonians can see her on April 22 at 7:30 at the Aladdin Theatre, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave. in Portland for $35, cheaper than any other recent show of hers. If soul or gospel music is your thing, don’t miss the Resistance Revival Chorus, who came out of the first Women’s March on Washington and whose allstar all-female cast sing lavish, brand-new gospel-flavored protest songs. They’re at City Winery on April 12 at 8 PM for $15.

Slinky Female-Fronted Funk and Soul From Shelley Nicole’s BlaKbüshe at Lincoln Center

“It is going to be an amazing, amazing night,” enthused Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh as politically fearless singer Shelley Nicole took the stage there last night with her shapeshifting eight-piece band blaKbüshe. This was the latest of a long series of Lincoln Center performances for the veteran member of kaleidoscopic New York avant funk institution Burnt Sugar.

Dressed in a natty grey suit with gold sleeves and vest, sporting a short mohawk and smacking a tambourine, she and her nine-piece band kicked off the party with BlaK Girls, a slinky latin-flavored funk tune that took a turn into classic 70s disco and then back. Keyboardist Leon Gruenbaum wound it up with a bubbly Rhodes solo. He teamed up with bassist Ganessa James for a thunderstorm low end as the band pounced into Box – as in “You’re not gonna box me!” – a heavy, cinematic funk tune driven by drummer Hiroyuki Matsuura and percusionist Shawn Banks.’

As the show went on, members of the Burnt Sugar family pitched in. One intoned a heartfelt, elegaic poem, For Marjory over a spaciously twinkly Isaac Hayes psych-soul backdrop. From there the group segued into the Harlem River Drive boudoir soul ballad Give It to Me, the bandleader’s impassioned vocals in tandem with harmony singer Ki Ki Hawkins, handing off to T. Jeffrey Smith’s smoky tenor sax and then a moody trumpet solo from Lewis Barnes before a big horn raveup.

Burnt Sugar guitarist Ben Tyree materialized at the back of the stage as Jerome Jordan switched out during that band’s Somebody to Love You, a slow-jam salute to motherhood punctuated by resonant, wee-hours muted trumpet and some snazzy, flickering tremolo-picking. Meanwhile, videos played on the screen overhead – one particularly strong image was a woman being embraced from behind, “Our love is militant” lipsticked on her chest.

A Doobie Brothers cover by any other band would have cleared the room, but you have to give this crew credit for having the chutzpah to do Long Train Running, reinventing it as a brisk soul-clap tune with a growling Jeff Jeudy metal guitar solo midway through.  A poetic tribute to Nina Simone was a big hit, followed by the catchy, determined hard-funk anthem I Am American, inspired by the promise of Obama’s first campaign.

“Puerto Rico is not in the news cycle. Let us not forget,” Nicole reminded, explaining that she’d welcome any contributions for a family with two little girls there that she’s helping through hard times. Then she launched into her new pro-choice single Punnany Politixxx – but before she did that she made sure everybody knew what punanny is. Images from recent womens’ marches played overhead as the group built momentum up to a rapidfire dancehall reggae coda featuring Jua Kali. 

The night’s best song was the defiantly undulating, organ-fueled latin soul anthem In Your View. They closed with Power on the Floor, its latin-funk message of empowerment inspired by the character Trinity in The Matrix. Fans of this band should also check out the free show on April 13 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space just south of 63rd St. where singer Martha Redbone will collaborate with the similarly eclectic Brooklyn Raga Massive for a mashup of Indian and African-American sounds. Get there early if you’re going.