Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings don't do anything new. And they're all the better for it. They're a full on Soul Revue style band, all clattering drums and horn powered. A stage full of musicians and a singer with the vocal ticks and tricks of Mavis Staples or Irma Thomas. I like them a lot. And I do like a big band. A lean, mean, hungry power trio is all very well but I like to see a band who can kick start a local economy.

All their songs sound like they could have been recorded between 1966 and 1974. If there was such a thing as a Golden Age in Soul, then those are the years that count. (Actually that's not in doubt. It's scientifically proven and my stereo proves it on a nightly basis).

They're not so much a tribute act, more like a band who have been lifted straight from one era into another. Like an Austin Soul Powers. Or as if King Arthur and The Knights of the Round table were actually a Soul act who were waiting under the Harlem Apollo (rather than a Welsh Hillside) ready for when they were needed.

Well Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are needed right now. Amy Winehouse certainly needed them. The Dap-Kings powered much of Amy Winehouse's Back To Black album and made it a very different (and much better album) than her debut. They also do important work on the (thankless) task of rehabilitating Coldplay on Mark Ronson's covers album Version.

Sharon Jones was born in 1956 Augusta Georgia (as was James Brown) but grew up in Brooklyn. She combined singing in Wedding bands and anonymous session work with stints as a security guard for Welles Fargo and at Rikers Island. It was all a long way from the Golden Age of Soul to which her voice and style belonged.

Old School style Soul did maintain a foothold through the Rare Groove scene of the 80's and the Northern Soul underground. Desco was a small Independent specialising in vinyl only releases catering for old Soul fans. Sharon Jones started recording vocal sessions for them in 1996 alongside the likes of Lee Fields.

When Desco folded, the house band The Soul Providers regrouped as The Dap-Kings featuring the former Desco label co- owner Bosco Bass Mann on bass and 17 year old Homer "Funkyfoot" Steinweiss on drums.

Dap Dipping with Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings was recorded on 8 track in a make shift basement studio in a Kung Fu dojo. It's a funky affair, much more influenced by the likes of James Brown than the Stax and Motown influenced albums that Sharon Jones released later.

MC and guitarist Binky Griptite (pay attention to the names) starts to describe an epidemic that's is (apparently) sweeping the nation. "It's called the Dap Dip and they say you get it in your pants." In true Soul revue style Sharon shouts back "Hell Binky, that's no epidemic. It's a brand new dance". It's a monstrous 4 note descending bass line. And there are foot by foot illustrations on the album sleeve for doing the dance to!

The band have thought out the packaging (the effort didn't just go on the names!), the sleeve notes, the graphics and the complete absences of dates mean you can almost believe this record was made 35 years ago.

All the required soul clichés are in place. Love is sweet. Men are mean. Often they are also no good. Make It Good To Me has the excellent line "It's half past making up time and a quarter to affection"

The second album Naturally was recorded on a 16 track in the studio below the Daptone offices in Brooklyn. It's actually a much better record, with a wider range of styles, but still sounding like it was recorded very much in the Golden Age of Soul.

From the bubbling Funk of How Do I Le t A Good Man Down to the Jean Knight/Betty Wright feel of Natural Born Lover where the guitars and horns do a call and response. And Soul cliché lovers and indeed lovers will be relieved to hear that the Natural Born Lover is dependable "He takes care of business".

Stranded In Your Love starts with a knock at the door as the disgraced ex lover pleads to be let back because he's had his car stolen and he can't sleep at his brothers house. It's great boy/girl soap opera duet, with both sides hamming it up as the sex with the ex saga unfolds.

And because the male voice is Lee Fields it means we get to hear Sharon say the immortal line "Now Lee I've told you. Is this romance or circumstance"? It's firmly in the tradition of the Otis Redding and Carla Thomas duets rather than Mills and Boon.

You're Gonna Get It is a Laura Lee/ Millie Jackson style, talking to the ladies about men. "Some love makes you do right. Some love makes you do wrong".

There's a clever Soul powered version of Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land which treats it like It's A Mans World, while Your Thing Is A Drag is a mix of Marva Whitney's It's My Thing and Papa's Got A brand new Bag by James Brown. And I mean it's a mix both in the name checking title and the song itself!

100 days 100 Nights came out last year. It's another step up terms of quality and diversity. It's still all old Soul though! When The Other Foot Drops, Uncle starts off with the guitar arpeggios and horns of Try A Little Tenderness but as the song gathers momentum it becomes more like Mr Big Stuff by Jean Knight. Two great records in one. Result!

Sharon Jones vocal on Ain't Nobody's Baby qualifies as a great bit of soul wailing and the guitar gives a cheeky nod to What A Man by Linda Lyndell (and redone by Salt N Pepa and En Vogue).

Be Easy and Let Them Knock both have a New Orleans/Alan Toussaint feel to them. Let Them Knock is Soul filth. The rasping Sax is fruity and positively licentious. "Let them knock upon my door til their hands are black and blue. I'm not answering for no one until my man and I are through".

There's a good live version of Let Them Knock at

Best of all though is Humble Me. Built on the chassis of Otis Redding's Pain In My Heart, complete with Steve Cropper style riffs, bar room piano, a lazy bass line that plays just behind the beat and a terrific vocal performance.

The key to Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings is to not treat them as revivalists, or like a Blues brothers act who think they are rejuvenating an era. It's better to treat them as if it's the audience who've gone back in time. After all, they do the kind of show that you'd have loved to see in 1970.

The whole thing just sounds right and completely authentic. You're not going to get a session guitarist with an inappropriate effects pedal or a drummer who's desperate to use his new gong. They just sound like a band who are at the height of their powers and are supremely confident that they are playing great gigs and writing great new songs. Which they are! They're the best new band of 1970. It's just the audience who've got this ridiculous notion that it's 2008.