Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings. Birmingham Yardbird 13/04/08

I had really fancied this gig.

From the records and the clips I’d seen I was expecting a full on, all out funky soul, sold out treat. And it was. There was no support but the dj’s delivered some furious funk and the Yardbird is just a good place to be anyway.

Eight Dap-Kings squeeze onto the small low stage. Suited and booted to various degrees of dapperness and exuding bar band nonchalance.

They’re all great players and look like they could probably play their instruments with one hand and use the other to skin you at poker. Except for the conga player who looks like he’s only a costume change away from a part in ‘Allo ‘Allo.

I felt I’d had my moneys worth even before Sharon Jones took to the stage.

MC and guitarist Binky Griptite led the band into a couple of warm up numbers and instrumentals. It was just so good to be standing so close to a band who had so completely captured the sound of classic soul. Northern and Southern, Country and Western. Sacred and profane and all points in-between. They had a handle on it and they were turning it. On!

Trumpet, 2 saxes, 2 guitars, congas and the effortless funky shuffle of the peerless Homer Funky Foot Steinweiss using the world’s smallest kit with no toms. (Or gongs. It didn’t levitate or explode into flames either!)

Bosco Bass Mann’s shades were straight from Starsky and Hutch and his bass lines were straight from all the best Rare Groove records. No complaints on either count then.

Binky Griptite’s stage patter is a delight. It’s 70’s dj/George Clinton meets Hendrix. In his world the merchandise stand isn’t a trestle table with some t shirts and cds. It’s a "Supersoul Superstore"

Sharon Jones is an Etta James style soul belter, with a sideline in the Tina Turner strut on unfeasible heels. (She probably didn’t wear them when she was a warder at Rikers Island. At least not on the days when she’d have to run after someone.)

Her act includes lots of chatting to the audience and she explains how she tackled the pitfalls of being a big woman dancing in a little dress. “I’ve got my shorts on!”

She does like to get people on stage though. One by one they’re dragged up to be danced at/with and sung to. The classic moment though was in a song called Be Easy.

She pulled a fresh faced fellow onto the stage and explained how this song was going to be an education to him and would help him in matters of love.

She asked if he was here with his girlfriend. She asked if he was here with a woman. “Are you here with a lady tonight?”

“Er I’m with my mum”....which was true. And his dad too. A family outing. Mum got dragged on stage as well. His dad plays drums in Ramones covers band Havana A Go Go. The Havana A Go Go hero was beaming “That’s my boy”.

The songs capture the sounds of all the best years of classic 60’s and 70’s Soul. Aint Nobody’s Baby opens out into a soaring Staple Singers type chorus and Mean Man positively shakes it’s tail feather.

Songs are stretched out or shortened with nods and glances between the band. So it feels as if the material is being moulded to the mood of the evening. They could have rehearsed being spontaneous though!

They finish with a covers of It’s a Mans World and There Was A Time. (Both Jones and her childhood hero Brown were born in Augusta Georgia).

A great gig then.

As on the records they’re not out do anything new or clever, just capture the sounds and feeling of classic era Soul. And they do it impeccably. It's more than just revivalism though. Jones herself has said “Maybe it’s coming back for others but I’ve lived through segregation and Stax and Otis dying. I’ve lived this part of history and now I’m singing it”.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bettye Lavette

Bettye LaVette's album The Scene Of The Crime is her 4th album since 2001.

The 62-year-old Soul veteran released her first single aged 16, but despite a string of singles, the debut album she recorded the following decade, (yes.... I do mean 10 years later!) got shelved and it took another another 10 years for an album came out on Motown. And then nothing, until now and her comparative commercial frenzy!

Her story is a classic case of bad luck and management that veered between criminal and pragmatic.

She didn't write her own material and saw herself as an interpreter of songs. Her best work is where she actually gets right inside the song and method acts the part.

Dave Godin, the influential Soul journalist understood that music isn't just something to dance to but there is life, meaning and a social context to how music is made and listened to and that the best singers could sing that life alive.

He saw it in Bettye LaVette and wrote that "Few can match the flawless totality of conveyed experience that Bettye LaVette never fails to achieve. She is the consummate artist who can relate on every level.

“Take Bettye LaVette away from Soul music's history and there is a gap which no other person I can think of could have filled."

Growing up in Detroit she went to school with many of the up and coming Motown acts. Her best friend knew Johnnie Mae Matthews who ran her own Northern label. She released her first single My Man He's A Loving Man in 1962 which was picked up by Atlantic.

LaVette remembers Matthews as "A big, mean woman with cuts on her face, who beat me up and cheated the Temptations and everybody else out of their money," The song was an R&B hit and she promoted it with a tour that included Clyde McPhatter, Ben E King, Barbara Lynn and Otis Redding. Not a bad start!

After a less successful second single You'll Never Change, Atlantic dropped her and Matthews passed her management contract on to Robert West (who had owned the studio where LaVette had first recorded). West released her 3rd single Witchcraft In The Air on his own Lupine label. He then got shot with his own gun while "negotiating" a deal for Mary Wells.

Let Me Down Easy is her defining song. Part Tango, part Dance Of The Sugar Plum fairy with its stop start rhythm and plucked strings. The vocal is hoarse and anguished, picking up from where despair leaves off. A desperate realisation that Love is walking out of the door.

She can see it and you can hear it!

A towering performance and an absolute Soul treasure. It was released in 1965 on Calla. LaVette certainly could pick 'em. Not only was she dropped after another couple of singles but the label was owned by Nate McCalla.... a gangland enforcer who would eventually disappear ...with his murdered body not turning up until years later.

LaVette has said wryly that "It was a great concern with record companies that I sounded more like Wilson Pickett than Diana Ross, It was only later that I realized that I sound different from other people, and I have to work with what I've got."

There were further releases on Big Wheel Records and Karen but still no hits and no money!

She did a version of the Kenny Rogers hit What Condition My Condition Is In. The young silver fox loved it and it led to a string of singles on his brother Lelan's Nashville based label Silver Fox. This is my favourite period of her career. It was gathered together on a Charly album Nearer To You that came out in the mid 80's.

Since then the compilation has come out on different labels, different track ordering and there is currently an import version called Piece Of My Heart. Essentially though, It's essential.

I think those Silver Fox singles are amongst the best things to come out of that whole Country Soul period. Where Black and White musicians were mixing and blending their respective styles and cooking up music that was both about the South and yet also nostalgic. Hard times, good lovin', home cooking.

The single He Made A Woman Out Of Me is a swampy country grind with a stinging guitar. It sounds as filthy as it's subject matter. I also like the way the story is set out, tying it together geographically and socially. "I was born on a levee. A little bit south of Montgomery. Mama worked at the big house and daddy worked for the county."

Outside of karaoke night it is actually quite hard to do a bad version of Piece Of My Heart. It's a song of universal experience that manages to push all the emotional buttons. Bettye LaVette's version released on SSS (yes another move!) sits between the supple, yet restrained version by Erma Franklin and the full flail and wail of Janis Joplin.

For my money, LaVette's version is the better.

She recorded a full album at Muscle Shoals, for Atlantic in 1972. It was shelved, although it was eventually released as Souvenirs in 2000 on the French label Art and Soul. There's a beefed up version around now with the obligatory extra tracks called Child Of The 70's.

It's often referred to as her great lost album. Although I don't think it deserves the full legendary status, there is some good stuff on it. It hasn't got the grit of the Silver Fox singles.There's a poppier feel to it, almost as if while Dusty Springfield and Petula Clarke et al were heading to Memphis, Betty was heading the other way.

It includes a cover of Neil Young's Heart Of Gold, It Aint Easy (the Ron Davies song that Bowie covered on Ziggy Stardust), The Stealer by Free and a terrific version of Joe Simon's Your Turn To Cry.

Turning her back on the music business she spent the next 7 years touring with the musical Bubbling Brown sugar.

There's a good interview at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djuQJDlGpbk.

She recalls her manager Jim Lewis telling her "You're really not that good. You're cute and your voice is powerful, but you gotta learn what to do with it. You can't just depend on the records. They may never sell. Learn how to do your show. Learn how to sing a song."

She says that if he hadn't said that then "I wouldn't have been able to hold on for these 45 years without a record unless I knew how to do a show."

A couple of singles came out during this period including the Soul Children style Thank You For Loving Me. It's sensuous and lush while it's follow up You're A Man Of Words I'm A Woman Of Action was thoroughly business like. In a good way.

Surprise disco anthem Doing the Best That I Can from 78 has the great lyric "Doin' the best that I can to get out of my head what got out of my hands" but I never warmed to it. A disco step too far. LaVette apparently hated it too.

Finally her debut album Tell Me A Lie came out on Motown in 1982. A mere 20 years after her first single. It's a bit slick for my tastes but the title track is really good and the album cover is worth a mention for it's picture of the slow dancing couple with the bloke slipping off his wedding ring behind the woman's back. Nice.

The resurgence started with a live album in 2001 and the album A Woman Like Me from 2004. It's a modern Blues record, with producer Dennis Walker supplying most of the songs. He previously worked with Robert Cray. And it shows.

I've Got My Own Hell To Raise from 2005 is a collection of songs all written by women, including Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Sinead O'Connor, Roseanne Cash and Aimee Mann. It's a really good album. LaVette is on top form and while the songs styles are from outside the Soul genre, the album has got Soul by the bucket load.

Last years album The Scene Of The Crime is an intriguing concept and also the best album she's actually made. (Not including the Silver Fox/SSS singles compilation.... which I would count amongst the best albums that anyone has made!)

It was recorded at FAME studios by Patterson Hood and his band Drive By Truckers. Patterson Hood's father, David Hood, not only plays bass on the latest Bettye LaVette album (he also played on the 1972 sessions) but he played on pretty much every great record to come out of Muscle Shoals during the '60s and '70s. And the good ones he didn't play on probably had Spooner Oldham on keyboards instead. And look! He crops up on this album too.

So the album has already got more than it's fair share of Soul icons, but the twist is that the Drive By Truckers are a self-styled greasy Southern Rock n Roll band. It's a great sound.

No horns (in itself a break from the Southern Soul sound) instead it's got the pad of electric piano, a really good dry drum sound and guitar lines that hang distorted and crumpled like yesterdays socks. At the centre of it all though is Bettye LaVette's raw voice and the life she wrings out of the songs.

There's a great moment on Choices where she slides the lines into each other "At an early age I found. I like drinking. I never turned one down"

LaVette had never written a song before, but she gets a co-writers credit as Patterson Hood used the stories and phrases she used around the studio. (Much as Steve Cropper had done with In The Midnight Hour for Wilson Pickett).

Before The Money Came (The Battle Of Bettye LaVette) has lines like "I knew David Ruffin when he was sober sleeping on my floor before he crossed over" sitting on a spiky Stones riff that could have sat happily on the end of Exile On Main Street.

On the Eddie Hinton song I Still Want To Be Your Baby the 2 tone strident guitar blares like an R&B ambulance while LaVette delivers a lyric of unrepentant, if not downright celebratory stubbornness.

It's great to hear her singing again, and unlike many comeback albums this is much more than an album trading on past glories and the goodwill of fans.

The esteemed Martin Longley (The Stirrer's Jazz wibble correspondent) saw her last year. (see link here)

She's playing again at the Jazz cafe Camden 13 April. I think it'll be a corker.