It says a lot about Sharon Jones that I lugged my ill-as-all-hell ass out to see her. I’ll spare you the details except to say that you gain a completely different perspective on painkillers when you’re not using them recreationally. When you’re dragging your ass to a show, it’s amazing how sensitive you become to peripheral factors that you otherwise wouldn’t consider relevant to your pleasure. It’s like being a cavefish thrown into the center of the sun. Even embedded in a Darvocet cocoon, I couldn’t help but notice the oddly vexing mix in the crowd: a Widespread Panic white-dread herd jumbled with NPR contributors and a small, but rather vocal, contingent of frat boys. Honestly, I like all of those groups but the latter; I’m simply qualifying my review by noting that my bitchery was on orange alert.
As luck would have it, I ended up standing in front of some ankle-belled bimbo who was making fun of the short arms on a little person that had just walked past; what’s worse was this was in the same breath that she mumbled a Katrina-victim platitude. I wish it were legal to use stun guns simply to improve the quality of accidental eavesdropping. This was after I’d purchased a four dollar pint of beer that was in some stunted version of a plastic Solo and, despite the price, not even filled to the rim. From the way the evening started, I was worried that I would feel atmospherically pickpocketed by the entire event.
I caught only a handful of opener, Brownout’s, songs. As a Latin funk jam band, there weren’t so much songs as there were long and chunky interchanges, with chatter amongst the various instruments as each person was given their moment to get Evel Knievel with their skills. I’m humble enough in my grasp of music to know that you can acquire a taste for genres that don’t immediately appeal to you. With the right person, the right chemistry, and the right angle of mind, you can learn to see what others love in music that you don’t know much about and that doesn’t, at first brush, emotionally penetrate anything in you.
That’s my gracious way of pointing out that I was bored, bored, bored. For some reason, jam bands are a musical conversation that I don’t feel involved in. Brownout plied their trade to a crowd that seemed to react in fits and spurts, more tics of dancing than massively involved motion. In fact, during a few impatiently dour moments, I thought the crowd moved with the kind of turgid enthusiasm you’d expect from bits of meat dropping into a clot of zombies. If the club had a different physical orientation, one where the stage was not the focal point, perhaps I would have let the funk licks tickle my ass and cut loose. As it was, Brownout simply receded into my background.
What followed Brownout, in my estimation, was one of the worst miscalculations I’ve ever seen in a live show. The Dap-Kings came out, without Sharon Jones, and proceeded to play a set of their own a long set. While I loved the dapper suits and the synchronized sway of the horn section, it seemed a letdown to hear a hollowed-out medley of tracks that I’m used to hearing Sharon Jones stomp around in. It’s possible that the idea was to have the Dap Kings build psychological anticipation for Sharon Jones to enter, but after half an hour, possibly even forty-five minutes, the titillation had turned to irritation. When the lead guitarist began singing a few numbers in a voice that would be generously described as sufficing, I looked over at my concert companion, Jessica, who stated matter of factly, “For the record, I’ve just begun cleaning my teeth with my guitar pick.”
This led me to wonder about the band’s inner dynamic. Did the Dap-Kings demand this concert within a concert so as to not have their talents overshadowed by Sharon Jones? I can easily see how this tension might develop in a group of able players, since writers and fans alike tend to get lazy in their absorption of a band’s sound, compacting their pleasure into the singer/frontperson and erasing what is a much more complicated and collaborative process. Egos get bruised. People start demanding stars on their dressing room doors and suddenly it all turns into Sneetches on the beaches.
Or maybe Sharon Jones is such a diva that she demanded the band fluff us for nearly an hour so that her entrance felt like a Papal ring kiss? Either way, I say it’s a bad call, one that nearly soured me on the whole show.
Of course, much of that resentment went to tatters when Miss Jones hit the stage. She doesn’t just perform; she becomes a center of seductive gravity. In body and voice, she commands every fucking inch of the room in ways that make you want to faint or give yourself entirely to fits of raw spirit. Jones has “it”, the kind of enveloping, hypnotic energy that artists spend lifetimes salivating for, but only actually touch for seconds, and only if they’re lucky. It would have been enough just to hear that torching voice slick its way through live versions of the album tracks.
But Jones turned the songs inside out, building in the stories behind them without missing a single step of rhythm, and orchestrating the band to follow the spontaneity of her flow in ways that made them all sound stronger, tighter, and electrifyingly new. It ain’t supposed to be the show they played last night, and with Sharon Jones, I doubt it ever is. Under her guidance, I think I came to see a bit more of what could make a jam band so compelling. She pulled apart the tracks to go on some vocal riff, to dialogue with the audience, to pull some whitey McWhite man on stage for a little grind, and at one point explained in story and body how African, Native American, and Christian slave culture collided in history to create some of the most beautiful movements and music the world has ever known. Then she brought it all back into the groove and locked it down.
By the time she was performing an imaginary skit about meeting George Bush to give him a piece of her mind, I was thinking about how long it’s been since I’ve felt like I was in the presence of that much artistic power and how long it’s been since we’ve had a pop music culture rich with that kind of history and political potency. People used to take to the streets to a beat.
Sharon Jones is a triumph of substance and soul. Just don’t make me wait so damn long next time. You ain’t the only diva in the house—I got shit to do too, hon’.