Diplomats of Solid Sound like it greasy. Their soulful music is rooted in the tunes of the past when steaks were marbled with fat and one was attracted to those from the wrong side of town. You can hear this in the girl group snappiness of their singing trio of Sarah Cram, Katherine Ruestow, and Abbie Sawyer. You can find this in the slurred notes of Nate “Count” Basinger’s heavy organ and the brassy blasts of Eddie McKinley’s saxophone playing. Or maybe you can simply enjoy the funky drums and bass of groove masters Forrest Heusinkveld and Ben Soltau. It’s all there. But the special sauce that brings these elements together and makes it into something special lies in the sound of Douglas Roberson’s guitar. Robeson’s been at the core of the band since their inception 18 years ago and has kept the musical action moving.
Diplomats of Solid Sound originally hail from Iowa City, and as any Hawkeye can tell you (in a state where pigs outnumber people) that there are many ways to kill a pig, but only a true master can make it scrumptious. Roberson is the top chef who takes this tasty list of ingredients (re: musicians) and makes it into something especially delicious. He does this the old fashioned way, through collaboration. Roberson leads by example not by dictate. The eight-piece combo work together to create their soulful sounds. They bring out the best in each other. Robertson inspires them to be their best.
If anyone from the MacArthur Foundation is reading this, the man deserves a genius grant for his work with Head Candy, the Swarays, the Bent Scepters, the Dangtrippers, the Shy Strangers, etc. as well as Diplomats of Solid Sound in keeping early rock alive and vital.
That explains the general high quality of the material, even when the songs emerge from different contexts. The 12 tracks on A Higher Place come across like a greatest hits package of rock from before the British Invasion where each track is from a different act but somehow belong on the same collection. Sure, there are some echoes of post-Beatles music here. For example, the female vocalists owe as much to the Supremes as they do to the Chiffons or the Shangri-Las on “Gotta Find that Man”. That’s a good thing. Diplomats of Solid Sound aren’t retro purists trying to recreate museum style pieces. They take inspiration wherever they can, from the smooth New Orleans’s R&B roots of “Take Some Pity on Me Baby” to the rootsy Dale Hawkins style boogie of “Sometimes” to the Shirley Ellis clap pat beat of “Already Gone”. There are many sonic references to artists like Booker T. Jones, King Curtis, and other great soul instrumentalists from the past.
A rock historian could pick out the multitude of sources that inform A Higher Place. That may be fun and even illustrative, but it’s beside the point. This is music to party with, dance to, enjoy for its own sake. The band tells us that we need to find “Common Ground”, but it’s not a location. It’s “moving to a higher place” with an emphasis on motion. Diplomats of Solid Sound understand that raising one’s spirit is sourced in keeping the body active and mobile. They don’t expect you to over-intellectualize their music. The band just wants you to have a good time.