Music

The Band of Heathens Honor Ray Charles With Soul, Love, and Song

Photo courtesy of the artist

Covering one of Ray Charles' most beloved albums track by track, the Band of Heathens' A Message From the People Revisited honors the humanity and soul of Charles with an Americana flair.

A Message from the People Revisited
The Band of Heathens

BOH

14 September 2018

Ray Charles' A Message from the People is a fascinating record. Musically, it's a tight and funky affair led by Charles' powerful vocals and backed by a studio of brilliant musicians. Its production is lush yet never synthetic, focusing on the raw energy of B3 organs, guitars, and rock solid bass and drums over commercially-minded grandiosity. Lyrically, Charles projects his concerns and fears over a crumbling social structure and hopes for a better world, one where we embrace each other as brother and sister regardless of our racial or genetic makeup. It's a beautiful and soulful call for love and harmony, undoubtedly a highlight in Charles' legendary career.

Yet, a cursory glance at today's headlines shows we've strayed from Charles' pleas of peace and brotherhood. Headline after headline it's political turmoil influencing social strife impacting the every day of people simply trying to get by. For artists across all disciplines–visual, literary, musical, theatrical–there's often an implicit need to comment on the state of the world. All music is a product of its time, and it tends to reflect this either subtly or overtly, often at the whims of its creator. The Austin-based the Band of Heathens, like many, grew up idolizing the soul and humanity Charles infused into his records. Part reaction to the times, part homage to one of their heroes, the Band of Heathens' latest release A Message From the People Revisited transplants Charles' songs from soul and R&B to modern Americana.

Revisiting a classic record track by track is a tall order to unpack, but this must be said: The Band of Heathens is an excellent group up for the challenge. They nail moments of tender Americana fragility on"Lift Every Voice and Sing" just as well as driving numbers like "Heaven Help Us All". After 13 years of recording, rehearsing, and touring, the band knows how to lock into airtight grooves as well as keep things loose and free. Their authentic southern vibe blends the best elements of soul, country, rock, and blues.

Reinterpreting classic recordings is a tricky proposition. If it's an effort born of honoring the original while offering a new, sincere take on a classic track the result can succeed. Gregory Porter's Nat King Cole tribute album is a perfect example of how to accomplish this well: a fantastic contemporary singer paying homage through expertly executed modern interpretations. However, it always pays to remember no one wants to hear a karaoke act (Weezer, we still love you, but leave Toto alone).

As a whole, A Message from the People Revisited works well. "Abraham, Martin and John" retains the tenderness of Charles' original, but adding drums and turning the song into a full-on ballad and gives it propulsion. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" is a polished, easy going track that shows the band at their relaxed best. "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" is so well produced and performed it could have come from directly from a 1970s-era vinyl, replete with vintage reverb and echo effects. The Band of Heathens don't merely play tribute band here–they actualize Charles' spirit and intention through their own sound, repeating his words and sentiment through their own voice.

Still, not everything clicks. "Hey Mister" feels a little forced, specifically with the clunky spoken intro. Likewise, the band cops the funk and soul of "Every Saturday Night" well enough, but it still flounders in comparison to the original. Still, there's plenty to dig about this record. Taking on a Ray Charles classic track by track is a bold move, but the Band of Heathens do it out of love.

A Message from the People Revisited stands on its own, evading the shadow of meeting the mile-high standard set by Charles back in 1972. It's great to consider that the band covered this seminal record out of love for the original, yet depressing to think that so many of the issues Charles sang about still ring true today. For all the hope for change the 1960s and 1970s sang about, we as a society still find ourselves dealing with overt racism, xenophobia, and deep cultural divides. Maybe we'll always need records like these: musical artifacts that tell us no matter what, we'll always hope and work for a better future.

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