|Bring It on Home to Me
|How Soul Music Found A Permanent Spot In The Indie Scene
Brian Chidester - May 13, 2014
At 10pm, the nightlife inhabitants at the Knitting Factory, former location of the Luna Lounge on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg, are restless for action. Suddenly, beneath the heavily scaffolded stage, out from the cushy modernist couches and jam- packed bar area, the sound of psychedelic soul music begins to boom. Sun-drenched guitar spills out over the constant thud of slap bass and funky drum rolls, as tripped-out projections blanket the band in kaleidoscope washes. The audience is a mix of hipsters, alternative finks, suave burlesque girls, sandy skate rats and veteran soul fanatics. They have come to hear The Stepkids - a three-piece band originally from New Haven, Connecticut.
From seemingly another stratosphere, soul music has found a new home. Over thirty years after its disappearance from the mainstream, soul has been reclaimed by independents and arty punks taken with its Stone Age lustiness and groove-oriented backbeat. Bobby Womack, the raspy soul singer/ songwriter that gave us early 70s classics such as Lookin for Love and Across 110th Street (the latter used in Jackie Brown), is suddenly in-demand on an international level. Womack first reemerged on the music scene singing on Damon Albarn's 2010 Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach. Then more recently recorded an Albarn-produced solo album that sent vintage fetishists proclaiming it the senior soul man's best in decades.
Soul, relates public radio DJ Robin Tomlin, is the world's most exciting music, because it's about real life. It's designed to lift you up, not to highlight your alienation, your depression or your narcissism. It emphasizes community and all shades of love and affairs of the heart.
In the Beginning
During the formative years of rhythm and blues (1941-59), three definitive voices defined the style commonly known as soul music: Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Bobby Blue Bland. The first two crossed-over to white audiences, while the third remained mostly a footnote in the larger movement that included protégés such as Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.
The 1960s saw the advent of hugely popular Phil Spector girl group singles and factory-made Motown hits, while English rockers like the Animals, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds owed such a huge debt to African-American blues and RandB artists that it's impossible to even consider 60s rock 'n roll without them. During the psychedelic Summer of Love, Jimi Hendrix, Booker T. and the MGs and Sly and the Family Stone boasted interracial bands that fused genres, as classic rockers like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin kept right on ripping through soul and blues material during the 1970s.
The seeds of the current revival were also planted almost immediately following the dissolution of disco in 1979. New Wavers in the UK re-imagined the Jamaican RandB sound of ska as Two Tone during the halcyon days of punk rock, c. 1977-79, while English culture mavens began collecting American soul 45s (a.k.a. Northern Soul) as if it were their birthright.
To be certain, soul music continued right through the 1980s, subsumed into the larger music industry with mainstream acts like Luther Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass who seemed less like the continuation of a movement and more like a product of it. The real thing went subterranean.
Through the Grapevine (Soul Music and the Underground)
In America, Go-go - a syncopated funk music based around dotted jungle rhythms and call-and-response vocals - became an underground sensation during the early-to-mid-80s to largely black nightclub audiences in the Washington D.C. area. Excessive PCP use on that scene assured that it never escaped regional popularity, yet to this day live Go-go shows in D.C. remain the best soul music experience in existence.
Still, by the end of the 80s, the dominant style in African-American music was no longer RandB/soul, but rather hip hop. 1989's 3 Feet and Rising by De La Soul and Paul's Boutique by the Beastie Boys were both sample-heavy hip-hop albums that rendered soul as one part of the psychedelic grab bag, and from 1990-95, hip-hop acts sampled funk breakbeats with such ubiquity that a new generation became interested in vintage soul as a means of tracing their favorite rap artists influences. The die was cast for soul music to be reborn.
In the early '90s, prominent artists like Massive Attack, the Fugees, DJ Shadow and later even white hipsters like Beck and the High Llamas reached deep into the well of soul and funk obscurities to cement the notion that soul music was more than just sample-ready: New stuff could now be made.
Brooklyn's Indie Soul
In NYC, at the turn of the millennium, Brooklyn's TV on the Radio brought soul music into the larger context of the (previously predominantly soul-less ) neo-post-punk and electro sound that wafted through the air of basement studios around Williamsburg during its azimuth moment in the sun. The heaviest concentration of indie soul music, notes Tomlin, is happening in NYC. Has been now for about a decade. Need evidence? Just walk out your door any night this week, and you'll find along Bedford Avenue half a dozen DJs spinning vintage soul and funk 45s for a blissed-out youth contingent. It was into this environment that Daptone Records and its prime-acts, the Budos Band, Antibalas and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, emerged.
Sharon Jones felt a bit like an arrival, relates Jim Thomson of Brooklyn's CSC Funk Band and owner of Electric Cowbell Records. There was a deliberate retro vibe, [but] what was refreshing about her was sung with such regret that the band's anonymous female singer turns the artiness of Lady Gaga and the dusky elegance of Adele into a kind of dramatic soul-punk anthem.
MS MR released Hurricane on July 2, and have since revealed their faces with a series of live shows and a menacing in-studio performance for the web series Yours Truly, filmed in Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios. Playing footsy with practically every member of the music press, the band (a pink/blue haired chanteuse and two scruffy male hipsters on drums and keyboard) revealed a bit of their inspiration in a letter to Yours Truly that promised some eclectic mischief:
Let's make a day of it - spend an afternoon smoking in the park, lying on each other's laps and finding animals in the clouds, then whisky gingers at Lucky Dog, a midnight screening at Nighthawk, all topped off with some late night karaoke in Chinatown (what's your guilty pleasure poison?) Please say you will.
Elsewhere in NYC, acts like flower-power soul singer Luss have been wowing audiences in the South Bronx at the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective on the first Fridays of each month, while over in Brooklyn, free-spirited bands such as Body Language, AVAN LAVA, Friends, Lucius and Ava Luna have been rolling around in a variety of soul-inflected source material.
Body Language, an interracial chillwave band, reworks one of the most underrated (and overlooked) styles from the 80s transition: electro- funk (or what was considered at the time breakdance music). The genre originally signaled soul music's acquiescence to New Wave, with androgynous glam-man Prince's mix of disco rhythms, icy synths and sexed-out lyrics, along with other artists like Newcleus, Jonzun Crew, Herbie Hancock, etc., found blaring out of boomboxes when battle lines were drawn and recycled cardboard pieces laid down on the concrete. Afrika Bambaataa from the Bronx and Cyberpunk from Detroit both sampled German synthpop pioneers Kraftwerk during the early 80s, setting the stage for a generation of breakdancing kids to move their bodies like a pack of dancing robots. It was the kind of shoulder-padded, peacock hairdo-wearing plastic soul that made purists (then as now) cringe. But in the hands of Body Language (as exemplified during their recent gig at Afropunk Fest in Brooklyn), audiences with no memory of the epoch of its origin dance unfettered to its celebratory rhythms and bucolic choruses.
Dance to the Music (Upbeat Is the New Downbeat)
On a Deli-organized June show at Williamsburg's Cameo, a club on North 6th Street, local band AVAN LAVA sent the crowd into an absolute frenzy when they launched into their summer 2012 anthem, It's Never Over. Formed by Fischerspooner multi- instrumentalists Michael Le Chev Cheever and Ian Pai, with new heartthrob singer Tom TC Hennes, AVAN LAVA blasted purple lasers and confetti over the audience, whilst on-stage dancers shimmied and shook in celebration of the band's unabashed upbeat electro-pop. Mixing Prince with Rick Astley and Wham!, things never veer into irony, rather the entire affair feels both arty and jubilant in a way not often experienced in a live setting.
Unlike George Michael, who spent years in the closet, Hennes is open about his homosexuality, yet doesn't want it to define him. I still feel hesitant to say, I'm a gay artist', Hennes wrote recently in a Huffington Post blog. Not because of the prejudice, but because I don't think my identity as a performer needs a qualified description. I am an artist. The most appealing part about AVAN LAVA is that we have no overt political or social agenda.
Being energetic and upbeat, concludes Cheever definitively, is the new counter-culture. We're not trying to make these kinds of angsty indie-rock songs... the point is to create a massive show where everyone is having fun.
Live is where the magic happens, agrees Hennes. I think that's what's always made [this kind of] music such a thrill.
Over thirty years after its disappearance from the mainstream, soul has been reclaimed by independents and arty punks
Bring It on Home to Me
"Bring It On Home To Me"
Examining the renaissance of soul with our indie communities.