New York Music Daily

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Tag: lee fields

An Oldschool Soul Show Offers a Break from a Scorching Summer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

This has been a challenging year for summer outdoor concerts in New York, to say the least. It’s impossible to remember if events across the city parks were ever cancelled en masse as they were a couple of weekends ago because of the heat. If there was ever a July where the chickens came home to roost to crush the global warming deniers’ conspiracy theories, this was it.

So maybe it’s understandable that on the one deliciously cool night of the week, people would be slow to get out of reflex mode, holed up in front of their air conditioners while Lee Fields and the Expressions were playing a simmering set of mostly midtempo oldschool soul songs at Damrosch Park. At its peak Saturday evening, the space might have been at half capacity. And that’s not a fault of programming: anyone who remembers the huge crowds that Sharon Jones used to draw around town knows how popular 1960s-style soul music remains. Still, it was weird to see a Lincoln Center Out of Doors bill that wasn’t close to being sold out.

The synergy between the gritty-voiced sixtysomething frontman and his devoted backing band, at least a generation removed, is clear. They get a seasoned master of moving crowds and getting people to get down, and he gets a bunch of guys who totally get what he does. Over the years, they’ve been a rotating cast of characters, although their collective sonics are spot-on retro.

This particular bassist had tweaked his big Marshall stack and Fender Jazz model to get a perfect, late 60s style clicky attack and decay that fell away almost as fast. In tandem with the group’s nimble, precisely swinging drummer, it wasn’t quite as if Fields had Booker T & the MGs backing him – but it was close. The keyboardist switched between a smoky B3 organ sound and subtle, low-key, bubbling Rhodes piano. The two-man horn section – trumpet and tenor sax – added spicy staccato and looming ambience, while the group’s conguera provided extra texture as well as animated backing vocals. Guitarist Thomas Brenneck ran his vintage hollow-body through generous amounts of reverb, shifting expertly between expansive chords, plaintively lingering accents and a little chicken-scratch funk.

After awhile, two-chord soul vamps tend to blend into each other, but the band mixed them up. At one point Brenneck nicked the “if we ever get out of here” riff from Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run and then ran with it. Methodically and seamlessly, they shifted from the sly come-on Will I Get Off Easy, to the insistent, practically hypnotic Love Prisoner, to the indignantly forceful Wake Up. “I’m sick of all these lies!” Fields railed.

Getting a listless crowd to sing along proved to be as much of a slog for Fields as it was for the other artists on the bill. On one hand, watching Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada play similarly expert soul riffs behind a parade of oldschool and newschool Texas soul singers was impressive. On the other hand, not everybody crossing the stage seemed up for it. And while it’s admirable that he would assemble an album resurrecting several veteran Tejano soul stars from the 60 and 70s, doing it as a deal with the devil is something we should not encourage. We’ve all read the horror stories coming out of Amazon: the Dickensian working conditions, employees having to carry pee bottles because they don’t get bathroom breaks, and the relentless, Orwellian surveillance, everybody scrambling to beat the clock that keeps track of every single movement. Corporations like Amazon love the PR that comes from token attempts to support the arts and create an illusion of dedication to multiculturalism. But let’s not fall for it.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow night, July 31 at Damrosch Park at 7:30 PM featuring a wildly diverse all-female lineup including but not limited to Americana soul songstress Courtney Marie Andrews, vintage Americana maven Rhiannon Giddens, Afro-Cuban singer Xiomara Laugart, legendary AACM singer/organist Amina Claudine Myers and formidable jazz vocalist/bandleader Charenée Wade.

Oldschool and Newschool Soul at Lincoln Center Out of Doors This July 27

There’s an intriguing triplebill this July 27 at Lincoln Center Out of Doors exploring the glorious past and trippy future of soul music. British band the Black Pumas, who open the night at 7:30 out back in Damrosch Park, represent the dark, psychedelic side, as does headlining Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada, who’s joined by a parade of singers from his Texas home turf. In between, there’s veteran singer and bandleader Lee Fields, a James Brown contemporary who got his start in the late 60s.

For an idea of what the night’s second set is going to sound like, you can stream Fields’ arguably best album Special Night at Bandcamp. For a more cynical appraisal of a Fields show, playing to a crowd of entitled yuppie puppies in Williamsburg almost a decade ago, you can visit this blog’s predecessor. On the album, Fields’ six-piece band the Expressions does a good job replicating the gritty analog sound of the late 60s and early 70s when Fields was working overtime on the small club circuit.

The catchy, swaying, midtempo title track starts out with Adam Scone’s organ over the rhythm section: bassist Quincy Bright and drummer Homer Steinweiss, Then Thomas Brenneck’s guitar and the horns make their way in judiciously, on a long, satisfying upward tangent capped off by a brooding spoken word interlude over lush strings. “Loneliness is dangerous and should be avoided if possible,” Fields cautions. His voice holds up well throughout the record, hitting all the high notes with passion and a little growl in places.

In keeping with the oldschool vibe, there’s reverb on everything here: the drums, the trebly bass and even the backing vocals. I’m Coming Home has coyly punchy call-and-response between lead and backup singers, tumbling drums and hi-beam horns. An unselfconsciously gorgeous 6/8 ballad, Work to Do paints a picture of a party animal trying to pull his act together. Does he ditch work to go to the therapist, or did his nocturnal ways cost him his job? Fields doesn’t specify.

Never Be Another You comes across as a sober (i.e. less psychedelically woozy) take on what Timmy Thomas did with Why Can’t We Live Together. Fields picks up the pace with the funkier Lover Man, then tackles issues of eco-disaster over the insistent, fuzztone Isleys pulse of Make This World.

Lingering jazz chords and jagged tremolo-picking from the guitar permeate Let Him In, along with a blaze of brass: it’s an uneasy look at a relationship that may be too damaged to resuscitate. The whole band add very unexpectedly subtle flavors in the stomping sex joint How I Like It. Where Is the Love – an original, not the 70s pop hit – has stiletto guitar chords paired with acidic, airy organ and horn incisions.

Fields wraps up the album with the bouncy, minor-key syncopation of Precious Love. Suddenly spycams and Instagram disappear, the internet is just a dialup connection for the Pentagon, gas is thirty-five cents a gallon, people make eye contact in conversation, and it’s 1970 again.

A Rare Soul Gem by Mickey Murray Finally Gets an Official Release

Boutique label Secret Stash Records began as a self-release project for a couple of Afro-Peruvian folk projects. Since then they scored a mighty coup with the first American version of one of the iconic albums of chicha (the inimitably Peruvian blend of surf music, psychedelic rock and a million south-of-the-border sounds), Los Destellos’ 1971 classic Constelacion. One of their latest rediscoveries is also a doozy, and like Constelacion, it may be the first time it’s seen an official release in the US, a crime since it was recorded for the label that James Brown made famous. Soul singer Mickey Murray’s People Are Together goes back to 1970. Sadly, its Sam Cooke-inspired title track and its message to the entire world to “stop this discrimination thing” and stir up “a big old melting pot” reputedly met with fervent resistance from urban radio at a time when defiant messages of black power and solidarity were all the rage (and at point in history, there was every reason why they should have been). It appears that the label withdrew the record at that point, effectively putting Murray’s career trajectory on ice.

Murray’s vocal style is often raspy and fervent in a Wilson Pickett vein, but he can also be elegant like Otis Redding. The band, and the arrangements are primo. It may not be true that they don’t make records like this anymore (Sharon Jones, the One and Nines and Spanglish Fly all mine a similar deep molasses analog sound), but there aren’t a lot of them. The bass here sounds like it’s been amped up a little in the remastering, which is fine, because the groove is laid-back yet penetrating: a hollowbody Vox played through an old tube amp maybe?

And the tracks are strong, and sound older than their turn-of-the-70s vintage. Try a Little Harder features ornate hammer-on soul guitar, a slowly burning brass arrangement and incisively minimalistic piano. Deadric Malone’s Ace of Spades has a vintage Curtis Mayfield vibe – it would have made a great blaxploitation movie theme. I Found Out, with its funky Rhodes piano and staccato guitar, works a mid-60s JBs vibe, while the band gives Money – the future Flying Lizards hit – a psychedelic Memphis funk treatment.

They go back to the Godfather of Soul for Fat Gal’s insistent, bass-driven pulse, “all meat and no potatoes,” as Murray puts it. There’s a brand-new dance, The Buzzard, complete with moves, growls and a shout-out to Murray’s hometown of Augusta, Georgia; there’s also a bizarrely spot-on critique of suburban sprawl, Explosive Population, clocking in at a brief minute and 46 seconds. Murray’s version of The Fever goes for a hastily shuffling feel with organ and latin-influenced percussion in lieu of Peggy Lee boudoir ambience. The album winds up with a blues-tinged talking-soul vamp and a surprisingly hard-rocking closing track with fuzztone bass and wah guitar. In addition to the usual digital formats, the album is available on limited-edition high-quality vinyl: fans of oldschool soul are in for a treat. RIYL: James Brown, Lee Fields, Charles Bradley, Willie Hightower, Howard Tate and other underrated 60s/70s soul crooners who’ve recently gotten a well-deserved second look.