A Victim of Love and Circumstance
While at SXSW, there is one definitive. You will be taking a chance. It will be choosing between two seemingly excellent showcases, hoping you made the right choice. It will be seeing a performance you know little about, hoping to uncover a hidden gem during the six-day event. All the while in Austin, you wish to see true greatness, unique to you, to your trip, and to your dedication to seeing an insane amount of music in such a short period of time.
Chance can be described as opportunity and there was no shortage of that on the Thursday night of South By. March 14th marked the evening showcase of the aptly-named Unstoppable Daptone Super Soul Revue. This event at the Moody Theater drew a sizeable line well-before the 8 pm start time and the winding group of dedicated fans saw members of the Menahan Street Band and soulman himself Charles Bradley walk by the growing crowd an hour before show time.
Daptone is a record label that believes in opportunity and second chances. The label is built on soulful and funky acts that are unique in style and performance and, dare I say, are the home of some of the best performers you will ever see live. Charles Bradley is one of those acts. Mr. Bradley was inspired to invent his own style after seeing a James Brown performance back in 1962. Music helped Mr. Bradley through a life on the streets, a past that held a variety of jobs taking him from coast to coast, and the devastating loss of his brother, the one who told Charles to never give up on his dreams of making music. Discovered in his 50’s by Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth (aka Bosco Mann), Charles Bradley has become one of the most inspiring musical acts, playing sold out shows across the country and gaining a global following at the young age of 65. The incomparable Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are a solid staple of Daptone Records, holding down a relentless touring schedule and issuing performances that leave audiences breathless and screaming for more. The SXSW showcase was a crowd-pleaser as much as an opportunity to highlight emerging Daptone artists. I was beyond excited to see what the evening held and it did not disappoint.
The evening opened with the newly-signed-to-Daptone Como Mamas. The ladies include lead singer Ester Mae Smith and sisters Angela Taylor and Della Daniels. As a young girl, Ester Mae Smith was not allowed to pursue her musical talent and it was a delight to see these ladies take the Moody stage first. The hour long set included songs of faith in Jesus and of God as a higher power – something different for SXSW and the young people in attendance. Ten minutes into the set, a casually dressed Sharon Jones entered the crowd to cheer on the Como Mamas and to keep some of the gathering front-rowers company. Holding the hand of a gentleman in a wheelchair, Ms. Jones alternated between chatting with the young man and offering up cheers of support as the Como Mamas sang “God is Good to Me”, “Ninety Nine and Half Won’t Do”, “God is Able”, and “Hold Me Jesus”. Moving through the audience to make her exit and prepare for her own performance, Ms. Jones drew screams from the crowd while she sweetly posed for pictures as the Como Mamas wrapped up their performance with “Thank Him Enough”. The lengthy set included songs that were strong in delivery and talent, and completely a cappella. Having an entire album with no backing track or instruments is uncharted territory for Daptone and it will be interesting to see what is next for the Como Mamas. This could be the first of several shows for the ladies, giving the Como Mamas needed time to perfect their crowd interaction, stage presence, and timing. Overall, the Como Mamas have an unbelievable talent and the strength to hold an audience through a full hour of a cappella songs.
Next up was Menahan Street Band who are a part of the sub-label of Daptone known as Dunham Records. The group, ready to warm-up the crowd for the much anticipated ‘Screaming Eagle of Soul’ Charles Bradley, have perfected their own style and subtle, yet powerful, delivery. The gentlemen of Menahan say very little and at other shows Mike Deller is known to leave his keys to wax poetic about the Band’s talent. If you listen carefully to Deller’s introductions you will hear hilarious and untrue quips about each member of Menahan, reminiscent of Will Ferrell’s 2012 player introduction at a Bulls/Hornets game. On Thursday night, Deller sadly kept his stylings to the organ as a calm and cool Binky Griptite of the Dap Kings introduced the Band. Menahan Street Band, lead by guitarist Tommy Brenneck, were ready to promote their latest installment called “The Crossing”. Faithful fans had begun to gather at Moody Theater, filling up the venue’s floor and seated balcony areas. The Band played “The Crossing”, “Keep Coming Back”, and “Three Faces” much to the dancing crowd’s delight. The too-short set also included the title track from their first album “Make the Road by Walking”. All of the songs flowed well together and it was a shame that The Menahan Street Band didn’t play more from their latest album. I believe that “Home Again” and “Montego Sunset” were featured as well during the 30 minute showcase. The set from Menahan was tight, funky, and soulful. The songs work well together on the albums and translate seamlessly in a live performance. This set was also the first of many for Dave Guy on trumpet who played not just with Menahan and Charles Bradley but The Sugarman 3, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, and The Budos Band. How he kept the songs going is anyone’s guess. If you ask me, it was his red oxfords. Ahem. Take note, fellas. Clearly, style is not lost on this crew. Leon Michels would keep up the pace on saxophone as well and Nick Movshon contributed on bass – both reappearing later in the evening. The songs of Menahan Street Band are like a continuous soundtrack showcasing the Band’s substantial talent.
Shortly after the Menahan Street Band, cool Binky Griptite made a reprise to introduce a sharply-dressed Charles Bradley. The crowd went crazy for Mr. Bradley who took the stage in confidence and style, wearing a cherry red suit and black shirt complete with patterned pocket square and rhinestone-encrusted skull belt buckle. The performance from Charles Bradley is one of the most heartfelt I’ve seen. Ever. His passion for music and his appreciation for being able to share his talent emanates from every song he performs. In taking photos of the man, I once had the lovely pleasure of conversing with after one of his 2012 SF performances, I was overcome by how much his songs mean to me AND everyone else in the audience. Mr. Bradley sings of love, hardship, pain, and hope- all the things that make a life truly well-traveled. Watching him sing and listening to him talk about “loving one another and treating others right” brought tears to my eyes. How amazing it is to see a man at 65 bring his wisdom, love, and honesty to crowd, especially one that included a younger generation. Charles Bradley has much to give and with talent in spades. My hope is that the people who hear his music and understand his message see them as a guide on how to live. If only we all knew to treat each other as we wanted to be treated. I watched as Mr. Bradley screamed and belted his words into the microphone, driving home such soulful hits like “Golden Rule”, “How Long”, and “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)”. Influenced by the musical moves of the late James Brown, Charles Bradley moved to the beat, throwing the microphone stand out by its cord to the front row. Good looking out to the guy standing next to me, by the way. He avoided a head-on collision with the microphone. Dropping to his knees to belt out notes, twisting, spinning, and dancing during The Menahan Street Band’s solid breakdown, and jumping directly into the splits, Charles Bradley was ‘the show’ that everyone was fired up to see. And everyone wanted more. The set seemed over in an instant and there was a deflated sense of sadness as Mr. Bradley left the stage giving the venue a glimpse of the silver sequined jaguar on the back of his red jacket.
But lest you think it was the end of one amazing set, he did return to the undying adulation of an overwhelmed crowd. Ready for his encore, Charles Bradley took the stage in a black suit that included a jacket adorned with gold beads at the shoulders, a never ending amount of sequins, and sleeves lined with black feathers. Not until later would I realize that under that dazzling jacket hid a vest with a sequined and silvered eagle. It was all very appropriate for a man called the ‘Screaming Eagle of Soul’. With his new album, “Victim of Love”, due for release on April 2nd, Mr. Bradley performed two new songs. One was titled “Strictly Reserved for You”, which appeared to bring heartbreaking tears to the singer’s eyes. The supportive Menahan Street Band remained stoic and serious, allowing Charles Bradley to work through the emotion tied to the song. The second new song was called “Confusion”, which had a rock feel to it based on the harder, more punk than funk sounds laid down by Tommy Brenneck on guitar. Maintaining his dance moves and feeling, Mr. Bradley kept the set going. He never wavered in his enthusiasm or the emotion he conveyed in each song. The crowd loved every second and I think we all knew that this part of the showcase would eventually, and unfortunately, have to end. Thanking the crowd for coming, Charles Bradley seemed moved by the steady fan support. I remember Mr. Bradley singing “Why Is It So Hard” right before a heartfelt thank you to the crowd – a genuine appreciation for everyone that came out to see him. The Menahan Street Band continued to play as the soulman himself stepped off stage and over the barricade. Charles Bradley hugged people in the crowd saying “thank you” and “I love you” to each person he met. The audience was moved by Mr. Bradley’s genuine gratitude and warmth. It was a moment in time I will never forget and it was a performance just as unique as each person in attendance.
As the entire room took a deep breath, The Sugarman 3 took the stage. The group includes saxophonist Neal Sugarman with Adam Scone on organ and Rudy Albin on drums. This set also included support from various members of Menahan Street Band and Budos Band. This interlude was meant to keep the energy high before Sharon Jones took the stage. The real highlight of this set was the funky organ playing by Adam Scone. The set seemed short and upon ending the set, the crowd was ready for the Dap Kings to play in Sharon Jones.
Back to keep the introductions going was the stylish Binky Griptite. Asking the crowd if they were ready for the “baddest of the bad” Ms. Sharon Jones, a cool Griptite was met with resounding screams and applause. First to hit the stage after the Dap Kings were the back-up singers to Ms. Jones. The word ‘back-up’ seems a misnomer as these two ladies, known as the Dapettes, were amazing with their own skills to spare. They each sang a song by way of introduction and each had the entire crowd now on their feet and amped for Sharon Jones. By then, it was time for the main event.
Onto the stage sauntered a classy Sharon Jones wearing a blue sequin and fringe dress accented by sparkly, silver stilettos. She was ecstatic to see her fans at Moody Theater and this created an infectious vibe from the start. Ready to get going and get funky, Ms. Jones did not mess around. Realizing her shoes would not hold up with all the dancing, Sharon Jones sweetly called off-stage for help. “Can you go into my suitcase, baby, and get the other silver shoes please?” Turning to the ladies in the front of the stage, Ms. Jones said, “You know what I’m talking about.” This, of course, was met with female screams and a few male whistles. With the right shoes on her feet, Sharon Jones interacted with the crowd and sang to the young gentleman in the wheelchair next to me. When I turned to smile at him, I could see the emotion on his face. Having Sharon Jones sing to him, after her earlier visit, was by far one of the most amazing incidences in his lifetime. I could tell he would always cherish that sweet moment. At this point in the show, even I thought I had seen all the fan interaction I could imagine.
But then, he appeared out of nowhere. A few feet away from me was a young guy doing his best Arthur Fonzarelli impression in a tight white T and jeans, along with a red bandana hanging out of his back pants pocket. Young Fonzi knew all the songs. He sang each word with utter devotion and danced like it was his job. The best part of the spectacle was that it did not go unnoticed. “Sharon! Sharon! Sharon!” he screamed at the top of lungs. Turning towards him, Sharon Jones reached out her hand and pulled the young man on stage. The audience was in shock, Fonzi was in heaven, and Sharon Jones was one, cool customer. The band started up again and she began singing to young Fonzi in her sultry voice. Trying to make a clean getaway in the first 10 seconds, little Fonzi made for the barricade. Playing it up for the crowd, Ms. Jones wasn’t going to let Mr. Superfan leave that easy. For a solid 2 minutes, she serenaded him and danced with lil Fonz- leading him back and forth across the stage. Being overconfident and somewhat intoxicated, little Fonzi got fresh and practically laid down on stage in the hope of looking like a sexy version of himself. Unfazed and professional, Ms. Jones played along, never giving little Fonz the upper hand. Sweetly she held his face towards the end of the melody and a final kiss on the lips practically sent young Fonzi into a Lil Wayne-like seizure. It was entertaining and hilarious.
The set included hits like “Better Things to Do”, “Mama Don’t Like My Man”, “She Ain’t a Child No More”, “He Said I Can”, and “When I Come Home”. During the set, Sharon Jones brought a younger man from backstage to sing a duet. Whether it was a planned and rehearsed was hard to tell. The young man had talent, from his pink scarf down to his black sequined Chucks.
Asking the Dap Kings if she could break it down, Sharon Jones lead the crowd through an impressive set of 1960’s dance moves. Ms. Jones did the pony and the mashed potato. But she didn’t just stop there. Moving to the other half of the stage as the Dap Kings continued to play, Sharon Jones continued with the jerk and the swim. Smiling ear to ear the entire time, Ms. Jones made it a fun time for everyone. It was a party. It was a dance party! Sharon Jones had each move down – she schooled the crowd and phones shot up in the air to capture the moment. Her moves were inspiring and it all made sense. You can’t do the pony or the mashed potato with the wrong shoes on your feet. It was the ultimate breakdown and Sharon Jones served it up perfectly. This part of the Daptone showcase was truly unstoppable- Sharon Jones’ songs were unparalleled in sound and her dance moves had jaws dropping. The fringed dress was the perfect attire for her performance and the photos barely do the set justice. I have seen Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings perform several times but each time it’s different. The constants are the funkiness of the band, the amazing voice of Ms. Jones, and the classiness of the entire group. If you ever have a chance to see Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, take it. Make sure you tip your hat to bassist Bosco Mann (aka Gabriel Roth) too – he discovered Ms. Jones and helped her catch her first big break over ten years ago.
Wrapping up the energy-filled night into the early hours of the morning were The Budos Band from Staten Island. With beers in hand, The Budos men played songs from their first album called “Budos Band”, their second album called “Budos Band II”, and their third album “Budos Band III”. With a sound guy at stage left ready to shut down the show, The Budos Band were running out of performance time. During “Unbroken, Unshaven” front man Jared Tankel on saxophone was disappointed. Throwing down the mic and announcing that this song would be their last, Tankel seemed angry. But the anger fueled one last hurrah for The Budos. Tankel who has perfected his New York onstage persona over the years with the help of Andrew Greene (“Start a riot, it’s the fucking Budos”) managed to turn the regularly-timed 3 minute song into a 10 minute closeout. The crowd was dancey and wild as the Budos closed out their set. Bass guitarist Daniel Foder held his instrument like a weapon. It’s true. The Budos Band are a force to reckoned with.
The only fitting encore for this unreal showcase was a reappearance by the collective members of the Menahan Street Band, The Sugarman 3, the Dap Kings, and The Budos Band, joined by The Como Mamas, Charles Bradley, and Sharon Jones. The closing song was a cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair”. And it was. Everyone in the room felt like family and it was sad to see the party end. Maybe it wasn’t so much lucky chance that brought me to the Moody Theater in Austin that Thursday night. But, regardless, I wouldn’t trade that opportunity for anything.