Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
100 Days, 100 Nights
There is no good reason for your life to fail to be infused with soul music, but until recently, mine was. I like soul music, love it in fact, but the shit is everywhere, bleeding in from every angle, and since I have apparently never gotten over high school, I buck against ambient culture when ever its is presented. Thankfully Sharon Jones pulled up in a mile long Cadillac of song and rescued me from myself. Jones and her Dap Kings don't exactly do anything new with soul music, but in that lies their brilliance. There are no awkward nods to hip-hop or Seventies funk that do injustice to the borrower and borrowee alike - there is just full bore soul power executed with hitman precision under the perfect conditions. When "Tell Me" come on like a freight train and Sharon belts out a "whoooooo" at the onset, its like the clearest oldies station has come on the dial. Most tracks hover around the 3 minute mark, surely appeasing the bores that insist this bracket imposed by limitations of vinyl single technology is the "proper" length for songs, but really I could listen to the lurching fun of "Be Easy" for hours at a stretch James Brown is hailed the genius he is primarily because he realized this and exploited it.
The government gets run through the coals on "When the Other Foots Drops, Uncle" by a gospel phalanx as does one night stands on the title track, but it's the mix of church groove and smoky bedroom soul that really make this thing temporarily the best record you ever heard. "Humble Me" with its guitars that shimmer like the first ray of sunshine after a storm, and Jones finds herself transfixed by the spirit. How can you even listen to some bumbling indie rock grad-school dropout mumble through his haircut about penguins and bicycles or whatever they talk about after hearing Sharon Jones prostrate herself before God and man, bellowing "let me grateful for my voice" with the best horn section in operation parting the read sea behind her? You can't.
"Keep on Looking" is the badass lock groove of the record. The Dap Kings have done well for themselves, serving as Amy Winehouse's back line, but the inarguable vocal talents of Ms. Druken Beehive McSkeletor has nothing on Jones' left hook. When the goddamn tambourine and trumpet kick in right before the cruel fade out, you know you re in the presence of music. "Answer Me" is the final gospel romp that leads us out through those big wide church doors, and on into...
The Scene of the Crime
...he blues in the bar across the street. Bettye Lavette has tremendous hipster pedigree, having scored a single top ten hit in the early sixties with "My Man‚ÄîHe's a Loving Man." Nothing really has the mystique of a one-hit-wonder, mirrored by her championing by the crate-raiding Northern Soul tastemakers. Classic performers like Lavette have comeback albums all the time - they get a cloying interview on CBS Sunday Morning where Diane Sawyer pretends to sway, but usually, the records are terrible over-produced clumsy affairs. What separates this from that scrap heap that her backup band happens to be my favorite band Drive-By Truckers.
Patterson Hood of the Truckers was all but raised under the mixing board at the FAME studios in Muscle Shoals co-owned by his dad David, who played bass on the Child of the Seventies sessions Lavette recorded, thankfully saved from obscurity by the Rhino Handmade archeologists. The group subdues their stormy guitar onslaught in favor of a slow simmer country meets bar-band ambiance done with the perfectly light touch to support Bettye's raspy voice and diva persona.
Good as the band is, the spotlight is clearly occupied by Bettye. She growls like a panther, squealing "Daddy, that's gooooooooddd.." on "I Still and to Be your Baby (Take Me Like I Am)" which sets the pace for the record. "I've been this way too long to change now," is the oft-repeated line, underscoring the lack of concessions she makes on this record. No uncomfortable guest stars like some pre-pubescent singer or aspiring rapper showing up to give this street viability.
The slow ballad about drinking, "Choices" makes a nice counterpoint to the vengeance-filled barn burners like "You Don't Know Me at All" and she ping-pongs between being blessed and cursed, wounded and triumphant throughout the record. It's like most modern blues records, really, but Lavette leaves the sugar coating to the over-processed offerings in those bins of the CD toward which you never venture. The Truckers prove themselves to be a perfect band for this endeavor, hopefully opening the door for other collaborations like this (imagine Tina Turner backed by the Black Crowes, both out for blood). The second-to-final track "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye Lavette)" was co-written by Lavette and Hood, and is the song that highlights the best of both factions. The band comes on The Silver Bullet band on the best night possible and Lavette's growl is possessed by bitterness and triumph, and that ultimately is what the blues and soul is about: living it, feeling it, playing it and singing it.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com