Covers are a tradition and an art in soul music. A good cover artist such as Otis Redding can wring every possible ounce of feeling out of simple existing tropes, bringing unprecedented depth and pathos to other people’s songs. For a singer like Redding, it doesn’t so much matter if it is an original tune or a cover; it just matters that it’s Otis. He covered everyone, from giants like Sam Cooke (multiple times—on Otis Blue alone he covered “Shake”, “A Change Is Gonna Come”, and “Wonderful World”) and The Rolling Stones (“Satisfaction”) to less successful singers like O.V. Wright (“That’s How Strong My Love Is”) and William Bell (“You Don’t Miss Your Water”). When performing a cover, an artist can choose two paths to gain notice: out-do the original version on its own terms – Wright and Bell are great singers, but Redding sings them out of the building on his covers—or change the feel of the song completely so the artist takes ownership of the song – Otis applied a bruising grit to Sam Cooke tunes that brings them down from Cooke’s angelic stratosphere. On his new album of soul covers, Where I’m Coming From, Dave Keller largely goes with the first approach, tackling songs on their own terms.
Several of the songs Keller chooses to cover are by artists from famous labels who were eclipsed by larger stars (Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and O.V. Wright all spent some time behind Al Green at Hi Records) or guys who only had a few hits (James Carr wrote the timeless “Dark End of the Street” but never reached that height again); Clarence Carter is best known for the irresistible riff of “Slip Away”. Keller’s covers are fine homages to these artists. The main weakness on the album is Keller’s vocal ability: He has a solid and sincere but unspectacular voice. For some of his covers, this doesn’t matter as much; for others, it is hard for Keller to stack up to the original.
Keller starts with Bobby Womack’s “More Than I Can Stand,” stripping away the original’s strings, making the song a little leaner, a little tougher. At the end, he tacks an extra minute on – a mean bass groove, squawking sax. The instrumentation is killer, but Keller’s singing lacks pizzaz. His band, The Revelations, also holds down the slinky forward motion of O.V. Wright’s “Are You Going Where I’m Coming From”, but Keller’s voice lacks the fragile quaver of Wright. Keller comes on strong as a wronged lover, but Wright’s performance is more nuanced: He’s confused and full of doubt, struggling with a conflict between the head and heart. And Keller can’t come close to James Carr’s deep, full, monster pipes when covering “Pouring Water on a Drowning Man”.
Keller’s vocal limitations are not always an impediment. “Too Weak to Fight”, originally recorded by Clarence Carter, doesn’t lose any power in Keller’s hands. He also does well with Robert Ward’s “Strictly Reserved for You”. And throughout Where I’m Coming From, the performances by The Revelations are excellent. The grooves are pristine, and they handle the deep soul and the funkier material with equal aplomb. The sound on the record is excellent in general, every chicken scratch and horn hit clear and strong.
Keller and the Revelations take overlooked soul material from the 1960s and 1970s and faithfully spit it back out in a time when soul of this variety is in relatively short supply. Keller can’t always match the vocals of the original singers (They may have been overlooked, but these guys could all belt), but his appreciation is clear and his instrumentation first-rate. Keller’s versions don’t eclipse the originals, but his efforts are admirable.