Soul music is dead.
Didn't see the obituary in the newspaper? That's because there wasn't one- the news was first announced on the Los Angeles radio station KDAY AM back in 1987. News of soul's death was soon heard coming from turntables all over the world, but nothing appeared in the papers- at least nothing directly stating the music had died, even though it went through a long, public demise. The news could only be read about in the charts, and then only if one was paying close attention, but few did. They were too busy following, or fearing, Soul's assassin to notice there was even a victim. Soul just quietly died one day, after playing host to the best party in the world for over 30 years, killed by a record called "Dopeman."
By the time people started to notice and began to ask the question, "Where did Soul go?" it was too late despite the efforts by some folks to resurrect it. The first to try were a few Brits, then D'Angelo. John Legend gave it a good shot, but R&B isn't the same thing as soul. Soul remained dead, but like I said, not everyone knew it.
Thankfully, in the mid-90s there were some New York City musicians who didn't get the news, or more accurately, willfully ignored it. These guys were into James Brown, the Philly sound, Stax Records, and were dedicated to the music to an obsessive degree, going so far as to perform and record it on old analog equipment so it would sound just right, as if it came from the music's heyday in the 60s and 70s. They started their own label, and released records only on vinyl. They even released 45s. Some people started to notice- the usual suspects of course- music geeks, collectors, aficionados, a few writers. There was a spat, and suddenly there were two labels. One one of them ended up being called Daptone, and they formed a house band called the Dap Kings. They soon found an extra singer to take care of a couple tracks. Legend has it she was a prison guard at the time, and her voice rivaled Tina Turner or Etta James in its power and passion. Eventually they made her the front woman for the band, and more people noticed. Her name is Sharon Jones.
In 2006 a skinny English woman named Amy hired the band to back her on her 2nd album, Back to Black, which turned out to be the best soul record of the last 20, maybe even 30 years. Amy, now dead, was young, white, provocative and as troubled as she was talented. She was a media sensation who couldn't handle success and self-destructed in the limelight. She seemed like the antithesis of Jones, who is older, black, and exudes discipline. The type of woman the limelight mostly shuns nowadays. To decide which woman is the better singer is a wholly subjective, and I'd say pointless, exercise. Obviously the white girl got a lot more attention, which would have been the case even if Winehouse didn't self-immolate in public, but to be fair, she also released a masterpiece of an album, a feat Jones and the Dap Kings haven't (so far) been able to equal.
Which brings me back to the death of Soul. Is it back? Has it been resurrected?
Those who were in attendance at the sold-out Davies Symphony Hall last Saturday night to see Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings would likely say "Hell yes!" because it's a stone cold fact that Jones and the band delivered a near-perfect show of living, breathing soul music, which has also been the case the previous two times I've seen them. In fact, as good as they were last week, I'd have to say this show only proved how consistent they are- it wasn't noticeably better, or any less entertaining, than the previous gigs I've attended. Just another excellent night from a hard-working, extremely talented band. There's a lot to be said for that- an awful lot actually, and the inclusion of a couple of songs from an upcoming album (including the excellent "Calamity") only bode well for what's ahead.
Daptone Records has a few other acts on its roster now (not all of them soul), so things seem to be brewing nicely. It looks like Soul is making a comeback from the dead. Still, I'm not certain this is true.
Performing at Davies under the presentation of the San Francisco Symphony is a prestige gig, and selling it out only adds to the luster. But what's bugging me is that like the Blues, the audience for Soul is now mostly white, as are the majority of musicians playing it. And if the music is undeniably African-American, can it still be considered alive when African Americans have all but abandoned it?
Now let me clarify a couple of things before you get all squirmy and uptight about this. First, I want to emphatically state I am not saying nor implying that one must be of a certain race, heritage or whatever to be able to play or appreciate any art from. That's ridiculous. Soul has a long history of white musicians being an integral part of its heritage and development, and the white audience has always been there- but historically this part of the audience only arrived after an act achieved a certain level of success and recognition from within the African-American audience. Are there some exceptions? Sure, and in the case of Teena Marie, it can also happen that a white performer never makes the same impact with the white audience as they do with African-Americans.
But the crowd at Davies, as was the case the other times I've seen this band, was overwhelmingly white, and the black faces in the audience were all older. This was a casual observation- I didn't stand at the door watching everyone come in, but I don't think I saw a single black person in the audience under the age of 40, and most of the audience seemed to be on the "more mature" side. It's almost always the same thing at blues concerts, and to large extent the same can be said of jazz, but at least with jazz there's an undeniably vibrant contingent of young African-Americans performing the music, even if there is little corresponding presence in the audience.
Is this just a matter of San Francisco/Bay Area demographics? I don't think so. I went to all three Prince concerts the last time he came through town and the audience was plenty diverse- everyone was there, and all age groups were well represented. The lines outside of venues featuring hip-hop shows and popular R&B artists give ample evidence of the black audience here, including younger people.
But it's not at shows like this one. That doesn't mean that Jones and the Dap Kings are any less talented or that the show was somehow "unauthentic." Nothing could be further from the truth. The eleven member group was solid from the get-go and their signature song, "100 Days," performed as an encore, is a classic of the genre and Jones sings it as well as one imagines Etta James could have in her prime. I just wonder about the viability of a genre of music whose original audience and creators have abandoned it- can it be considered as more than a "museum piece" or a form of nostalgia?
If you were at the show, probably none of this mattered, unless you, like me, wished the audience, the entire audience, were up and out of their seats, dancing through the entire set, instead of just toward the end. The confines of Davies probably had something to do with that- but I suspect the make-up of the audience was the more telling factor. Regardless, for two hours at least, Soul felt very much alive and well- and that felt awesome.
Top photo: Jacob Bickenstaff.
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