[29 July 2008]
There was a time during the ‘60s when the highest compliment one could give a white musician was that he or she sounded black. The racist assumption that only a black artist could perform authentic soul music was so ingrained in the culture that there was even a term invented for white people who played African-American music: blue-eyed soul.
Among the most celebrated blue-eyed soul practitioners were Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere. Cropper, a founding member of Stax Records’ house band, Booker T & the MGs, played guitar on literally hundreds of great soul releases including Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” (which Cropper produced and cowrote) and Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man”. Keyboardist and singer Felix Cavalieri fronted the Young Rascals and helped give the Rascals its signature sound of pained vocals and hard-driving gospel organ, playing on such hits as “Good Lovin’”, “Groovin’”, and “People Got to Be Free”.
Cropper and Cavaliere recently got together for the first time to write and record as a team. As one might expect, the result is a soulful stew of R&B-flavored tracks with a deep groove. Cropper’s guitar licks ripple like whiskey on the rocks trickling down the back of your throat while you smack your lips and say, “Aaah”. He makes every song sing when he takes a quick solo. Cropper never plays too long or overstays his welcome. He always knows when to say when.
Cavaliere is also in fine form. The urgency of his youthful vocals has been replaced by a more mature intensity. When he delivers a line like, “How am I supposed to live without you?”, it’s clear that Cavaliere has experienced enough of life that he understands how much it hurts to be without someone special. His keyboard playing lies at the intersection of church and jazz. Like Cropper, he’s wise enough to understate. He doesn’t go for flashy riffs as much as heavy ones that expressively reverberate.
The two men play together well. This can best be seen on the disc’s instrumentals, like “Full Moon Tonight” and “Jamaica Delight”, that work as slow burnin’ jams that never go out of control. The music flows like a river that moves mightily downstream after a rainstorm but never floods over its banks.
Joining Cropper and Cavaliere are drummer Chester Thompson (John Fogerty, Frank Zappa, Genesis), Shake Anderson (Curtis Mayfield) and two backup singers, Mark Williams and N’nandi Bryant. They keep things basic. There’s no special production tricks. Just the sound of player’s playing.
This is 2008, not 1968, and while there are some contemporary flourishes, like the rap leads on “Make the Time Go Faster”, most of these brand spanking new tunes would not have sounded out of place on the radio back in the day. The material seems fresh rather than dated because of the earnestness of the performances. Sometimes the music just seems to jump out at you, like Cropper’s guitar riffs that begin the lively instrumental “Love Appetite” or Cavaliere’s moan that starts off the haunting “One of These Days.” But to call this blue-eyed soul in 2008 would be wrong. This is just good soulful music.