Anybody who saw Barrence Whitfield and the Savages during their original heyday 30 years ago remembers them as an exciting live band. Whitfield was one crazy-ass performer who would jump all over the stage and into the audience—sort of the East Coast equivalent of Country Dick Montana of California’s the Beat Farmers. Montana croaked from a heart attack back in 1995 while performing at a show in Canada. Whitfield’s still with us. He calmed down during the ‘90s, and produced two wonderful R&B/folk records with Tom Russell. Whitfield and Russell’s version of “Cuban Sandwich” is still the definitive ode to a food made with two kinds of pork. After some 25 years, Whitfield has joined up with core members of the original Savages and released a hard drivin’ record of blues-based rock and roll.
I don’t know if Whitfield still performs with abandon, but he does continue to holler the lyrics as needed over saxophone lines, loud guitar, pounding drums, pulsating bass licks and keyboard riffs. Sometimes it sounds as if he’s straining to be heard above the clatter. The noise is the point of it all. This record is meant to be played loudly more than heard. The songs, which vary from the rockabilly thrash of “Who’s Gonna Rock My Baby” to the more dramatic soul ache of “You Told Me a Lie”, always go to the edge of chaos before getting back to the melodies which frame them. This can get a bit predictable, but again, the formula is part of the fun. Knowing what will happen next makes it easier to get into the purposeful mindlessness of the moment.
Don’t expect any bon sauvages here. There’s nothing noble or gentlemanly about the music. This is the raw stuff from which forms the matrix from which bar bands and garage rock meet. At its best, the record will get you making the violent gestures of dance—stomping, chopping, and the like. At its worst, this will make your ears bleed. The difference between these new discs and those Barrence Whitfield and the Savages made in the past isn’t so much in the music, but in its context. The old alternative, independent label rock played in college campus dives and grittier parts of the city has gone the way of the Twist in the White House and disco dancing in platform shoes.
My guess is most of Barrence Whitfield and the Savages’ original fans think they are too old to go out and hear such wild tunes. Yet what drew people to the band originally still exists. For those who did not hear it the first time, the music is fresh. Savage Kings is not an album for the nostalgic. Even the retro “Hold Me Close” veers from greasy fifties doowop into something coarse and strange, so that the “bleeding heart” referred to resembles a living organ dripping red more than a romantic metaphor.
The disc was produced by the band’s guitar player, Peter Greenberg, and has a purposely muddy vibe meant to evoke the way records were made back before digitization. This adds to the atmosphere, but there are times one wishes the instruments were more distinguishable from each other or that the vocals were more understandable. Whitfield’s voice can be an energizing entity and should be heard clearly for full effect.
// Notes from the Road
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