Christmas work parties are usually soulless affairs exemplified by covers bands with scantily clad backing singers and a little added brass belting out the hits of yesterday. My work party was no different. The halls were decked, but the band was a bust. Elevator soul music—talented and tuneful, but lacking the tenaciousness of the real thing. Sure, it made people dance, but it didn’t make them dance. It made people groove, but it didn’t make them groove. Italicizing these words doesn’t begin to exemplify the effect real soul music can have on the masses. Add some funk (which the work party also lacked) and, well, you’re liable to lose control.
Of course, control is something Sharon Jones has in abundance. She controls her stage (“When I say go, you go,” she tells one young woman who, when pulled up to dance, takes her flailing a step too far.) She controls her band (“Wait a second,” she announces as they plow into “My Man is a Mean Man,” stopping them just so she can talk to us.) She’s even controlled her own destiny (somewhat), persevering for 30-plus years before finally making it as a solo artist. Luckily, I also control my own destiny (somewhat) and left my work party, hailed a cab, and hightailed it the 15 blocks to the place where Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were playing. (Although “playing” is perhaps a misrepresentation; more like living and breathing). The folks at work are fine, but I wanted to dance.
At 51, most people are downsizing, trading houses for condos, stocks for money-market accounts, Josh Homme for Josh Groban. Sharon Jones is not a normal 51-year-old. Her stock is soul music, and, if the response to this show and her latest album is any indicator, it will soar in 2008. Of course, 2007 didn’t start out too great for Jones. Amy Winehouse co-opted her sound and corralled her backing band, the Dap-Kings, for a highly praised album and sold-out US tour. Unfortunately for Winehouse, the trappings of fame took its toll, turning her into a tabloid caricature, and the Dap-Kings returned to their Daptone Records home to work with Jones on their latest release, 100 Days, 100 Nights. Whereas prior releases (Dap Dippin and Naturally) mixed Stax soul with liberal doses of funk, the group’s latest effort is smoother—more Motown than Muscle Shoals.
Despite the slow start, Jones’ year has ended with a gallop: an acclaimed new album, this rapturously received tour, and a starring role—as, what else, a soul singer—in Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters. Indeed, Jones’ own life story reads like a movie script. Born in Augusta, GA—birthplace to James Brown, whose charismatic stage presence she has inherited—Sharon Jones moved to New York at an early age and attempted to eek out a career as a singer. At 25, however, musical executives told her she was too old, too black, and too heavy to make it. Undeterred, she carried on, doing session work as a backing singer while making a living as a corrections officer and armored car guard (elements of which she encompasses in her commanding stage presence.) Her big break came in 1996 when she was discovered by Gabriel Roth, future Daptone Records owner, while backing soul and deep funk legend Lee Fields. From there she hooked up with the Dap-Kings—Roth plays bass in the band—and released a string of singles that found a home with a diverse funk and soul crowd.
Tonight’s crowd begins to trickle in as Daptone labelmates the Budos Band—an 11-piece group featuring four horn players and four percussionists alongside bass, keys, and guitar—takes the stage. Befitting a band with such a large array of percussionists—a drummer, bongo player and two people who like to shake and scrape things—they are extremely rhythmic. Led by a saxophonist who seemingly graduated from Swearing 101 (“This shit is really sweet, so fucking dance,” he implores at one juncture), the Budos Band look like a group of cool cats appropriating African music. That they do it so well is kudos to the band, belying an impressive sense of musicianship and musical knowledge. They are tight and taut and, despite their numbers, not at all extraneous. Each instrumentalist—minus the shakers and scrapers—gets a chance to shine, taking solos, as they ready the crowd for Sharon Jones’ soul onslaught with an interpretative and instrumental cover of Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl.” How they sustain themselves financially with 11 members is anyone’s guess, but judging by the crowd reaction, many of whom pre-empt the many horn solos by tooting imaginary trumpets, they have a growing and gregarious fan base.
A growing and gregarious fan base is something Sharon Jones knows well. Towards the end of her set, she’ll stop her band mid-song and state: “The first time I played Philadelphia, 20 people came to my show, and 30 people came the second time. But this is my third time,” she says surveying the sold-out crowd. “So I must have been doing something pretty good.”
Yes she has. But so have the Dap-Kings who stride onstage, dressed to embody their name in dapper, matching suits. They play for fifteen minutes before Jones’ entrance, not only whetting our appetite, but drowning it. Binky Griptite, the band’s singer, MC, and rhythm guitarist, leads the eight-piece group through several songs. The individual dance areas that were wide open for the Budos Band get tighter as the sold-out crowd swells forward. Coats are trodden on; drinks are spilled; heads bob, and feet shuffle. The anticipation reaches its apex as Gripite introduces, somewhat theatrically, the ‘super bad soul sister’ (his words, not mine), and Sharon Jones strides onstage.
The first thing I notice is how short she is, so much so, that even with heels (Jones, not me) I have trouble seeing the singer from only ten rows back. But even with your field of vision obscured, you can definitely hear her. At one point, she puts an unsuspecting crowd member on his back with a powerful vocal wallop after inviting him up on stage for a soul serenade. Dressed in a sparkling white dress, she commands the stage, prowling, shuffling, and shimmying, perilously perching upon the lip, looking down on us all, effectively holding her notes and the audience captive at the same time.
As expected, the set list is heavy on tunes taken from 100 Days, 100 Nights, yet things kick off with an old 45—“I’m Not Gonna Cry.” It’s a sign of things to come: Jones’ vocals are as strong as the concrete floor we stand on, and the band plays with a militaristic precision that never forsakes this precision for passion. “Can you hear me over here?” she shouts, mid-song. As if she needs to ask. Her vocals are powerful and, like sugar, raw and refined.
What’s striking, aside from the music, is the interactive aspect of it all. Two songs in, Jones asks us to be her backing singers on the bass-heavy, Stax-sounding “Nobody’s Baby.” That we nail it on only the second attempt is testament to the crowd, and also the band’s strong songwriting. Before “Be Easy”—which sounds slower than its recorded counterpart, more seductive—she asks for a young guy to join her onstage, someone around 27. The guy in question happens to be a nervous looking college kid who is told: “This song is called ‘Be Easy’ and I need you to be easy.”
For “Keep Looking” she pulls four girls on stage, dancing them off one by one as the song begins to break down. This cabaret aspect does get a little cloying after a while, distracting from the music. Still, it enhances some songs, especially during the aforementioned moment when Jones’ voice quite literally knocked an unsuspecting crowd member on the floor. But by the time we’re faced with a Santa-hat-wearing white boy whirling his arms during “My Man is a Mean Man,” it’s overkill.
Then again Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are, like James Brown, as much about entertainment as the music itself. The show is as important as the songs. That they are all so musically proficient allows them to indulge in this; breaking things down, stepping back when they need to, and stepping up again when they want to reclaim their stage. As the horns punctuate Jones’ sentences, she plays the part of preacher, commanding us to have a good time. But even when she gets deep—before “What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?”, a 45 released in 2002, she states: “There’s wars, gas is going up and the rents are going up, and Mother Nature is going down”—it’s apparent that the only cure to soothe these ills is soul. As she says herself at one juncture, “I like to move, I like to dance, when things get me down.”
As the three-piece horn section segues into the title track from their latest long player with a mournful blast that belies the song’s upbeat nature, I think about my Christmas party. Unlike businesses, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings don’t need an excuse to get down. The energy they exude could light a thousand Christmas trees. And while the star perched on top would undoubtedly be Sharon Jones, it’s the Dap-Kings that make her shine.