[31 January 2010]
Somewhere deep in the Sandpoint neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, within a stone’s throw from the university, exists a modest Cape Cod-style house. Unlike Motown’s Hitsville USA house in Detroit, or 926 E. McLemore Avenue in Memphis, where Stax Records did their thing, it looks like any other house on the block, give or take some excess foliage.
But inside that house exists a studio, Audio Recording, which encompasses the rich history of Jet City’s funk and soul repertoire, helmed by legendary sound engineer Kearney Barton. While Barton was more famously known for his work with such ‘60s garage rock savages as the Sonics and the Wailers, his true love was the robust R&B scene that existed in Seattle two decades before Sub Pop, K Records, and Kill Rock Stars rewrote the book on the Pacific Northwest music scene forevermore. While these days Seattle is best known for the city that brought the world Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, a deeper peering into the legacy of this town will bring forth a priceless tapestry of tales that found a teenage Ray Charles getting his start under the tutelage of local jazz legend Ernestine Anderson in the late 1940s, a young Quincy Jones leading his band through several prom nights at his alma mater, Garfield High—the same school that counts Jimi Hendrix among its alumni, back when he was still went by the name Johnny Allen and played with a group called the Velvetones.
Beyond these marquee names Seattle helped groom exists a deep catalog of lesser-known (but no less talented) acts who helped shape the city’s first true music scene, back when Kurdt Cobain was just the apple of his mama’s eye. These artists, with names like Overton Berry, Johnny Lewis, Patrinell Staten, the Topics, and the Black On White Affair, comprised this circuit and served as the stars of the extraordinary 2004 compilation Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest in Funk and Soul 1965-1975, a 21-track collection of ultra-rare 45s, several of which were cut right in that famous house in the Sandpoint district by Barton and then scored airplay on Seattle’s old soul station, KYAC. Released on the Northwest-based Light in the Attic funk/soul imprint, the anthology was one of that year’s true high points and helped bring some of the Emerald City’s forgotten greats back into the foreground. The label (with the help of local radio personality Johnny Horn of the great Seattle FM station KEXP) even helped stage a one-night-only reunion featuring many of the artists featured on the compilation, including Staten, Berry, Ron Buford, Robbie Hill, and KYAC DJ Robert Nesbitt, among others. Following the concert, there was discussion on the part of several LITA and KEXP bigwigs to record an album of new material featuring many of original stars of Wheedle’s Groove, with Beastie Boys associate Dynomite D as the lead producer.
Five years later, this album finally comes to fruition in the form of Kearney Barton, a nine-track collection recorded at Audio Recording and named after the studio’s beloved caretaker and overseen by Dynomite and Barton himself. It’s recorded in analog with much of the same equipment shared by many of the 45s featured on the original Wheedle’s compilation, and at first it’s hard to tell whether these songs were recorded during the Nixon or Dubya administrations. Then you get to the contribution from Patrinell Staten (now Pastor Pat Wright), who leads her Total Experience Gospel Choir through a stirring, soulful reinterpretation of Soundgarden’s “Jesus Christ Pose” that lets you know exactly what time it is. In the careful hands of the good Pastor and arranger Bob Lovelace, the 1991 Badmotorfinger epic becomes a Sunday morning hosanna, rechanneling the angst of the original into sunbeams of praise and redemption. In fact, it has been said that upon listening to it, the members of Soundgarden were absolutely blown away by the cover.
Beyond “Jesus Christ Pose”, clearly the highlight of this album, one must not overlook some of the other amazing workouts featured on Kearney Barton. Another inventive cover from Generation X’s age of discovery appears here: a great rendition of the Stone Roses’ 1989 acid house epic “Fool’s Gold”, performed by Robbie Hill’s Family Affair, featuring the legendary Muscle Shoals Horns alongside local grunge-era studio heavyweight Jack Endino (Mudhoney, Nirvana) behind the engineering desk. They might have pared the nearly ten-minute long track in half, but what this version lacks in time length it makes up for in groove, transforming the skeletal, trippy James Brown-on-Ecstasy vibe of the original with a rich, horn-laden boogaloo boogie that really brings the tune’s funky leanings to full fruition. Also worth noting is the fairly faithful rendition of the 1971 psyche-jazz instrumental “Humpty Dumpty”, originated by Marc Moulin and Placebo by Overton Berry, and, in spite of its initially hokey theme, “H.O.E.”, an all-star throw-down that also features the Muscle Shoals Horns, as well as a reunion between local soul luminaries Ron Buford on the Hammond B-3 and vocalist Ural Thomas, who had a regional hit as a duo with the 1965 song “Deep Soul”.
Kearney Barton is a testament not only to the man inside that enigmatic house on the cover of the album which bears his name, but also to the great local soul acts who cut some of the greatest tunes of soul music’s lost back pages. This album is the Seattle equivalent of Standing in the Shadows of Motown (there’s even a documentary on these reunion sessions due out in 2010—stay tuned). It would be great to see a followup in the near future from this Wheedle’s Groove crew, preferably beefed up with some more inventive grunge covers in the mix. In fact, I can hear an Otis Redding-style revision of Nirvana’s “Negative Creep” already cooking in my head.