St. Paul & the Broken Bones Lay Down the Gospel – The Chapel (San Francisco, CA – April 22, 2014)
There’s been a lot written lately about the “demise” of the music industry. PopMatters featured an editorial about what they refer to as the 1% -2% number. That’s the number of music customers who visit iTunes and actually purchase the song that they sample.
With the fragmentation of music, the focus on songs versus albums, and file sharing cutting out the artists, country, folk and soul groups who get back to the basics, like St. Paul & the Broken Bones, might stem the tide somewhat for the music industry. So much music is disposable and ephemeral these days, like techno club music intended for dancing more than listening. Over the past few weeks I’ve been hearing retro soul songs on Sirius that sounded new and fresh and, much to my surprise, each time it turned out to be St. Paul and the Broken Bones. The sound was authentic 60’s soul and certainly familiar without being a cliché or an imitation. Plus the songs that I heard were originals, not cover songs. I found out that St. Paul was appearing at the Chapel in San Francisco, a two year-old venue run by the remarkable Slims, American Music Hall, Hardly Strictly crew in the Mission District. I called for tickets and much to my surprise they were sold out. I had to call on my friend Tanya to get me into the show.
First of all, the Chapel is a great, relatively new place to hear music in San Francisco. The actual concert room probably holds 150-200 people, and is standing room only downstairs. There is limited seating upstairs and a nicely stocked bar. The Vestry restaurant attached to the Chapel serves above average rock club food. All three of my friends were impressed with the quality of their meals.
The opening act, LI XI is another example (in my estimation) 0f the music industry problem. LI XI call their sound a mix between 60’s psychedelia and contemporary electronica. Maryann Tran’s “voice” is a high pitched whine that accompanies a very loud experimental pop drone. The crowd responded with what I would generously describe as a polite applause. If LI XI is around two years from now I truly have lost touch with the new world order. (When I first heard Green Day and Tower of Power in their nascent years, I knew that their music would last at least a few decades.) Fortunately, the audience did not demand an encore. In between acts, the recorded music went from uninteresting to Booker T and the MG instrumentals – and that was a good sign.
The Broken Bones came out, plugged in, and launched into “Chicken Pox” a hook-oriented, horn driven instrumental that would have been right at home on an MG’s record or in a Meters set. There was a big band intro which brought lead singer “St” Paul Janeway striding onto the stage in a dark suit and horn-rimmed glasses. The bass player and the two horn players were dressed in white shirts and black ties. The band looked like it was comprised of Southern frat house boys sent by a time machine from the early sixties to San Francisco to play a “beach music” toga party. But when Janeway opened his mouth and begin to sing, the sound that came out was a cross between George Jackson, Al Green and O.V. Wright. The crowd responded immediately and turned into one throbbing sea of humanity under the balcony, where I had the best seat in the house.
Janeway has the rare gene that all the other current retro soul artists, including Mayer Hawthorn, Nick Waterhouse and Jesse Dee, are striving for in their craft; however, in this case, it’s the background of the band that results in its authenticity. Janeway was raised in the small rural town of Chelsea, Alabama, and attended a non-denominational Pentecostal-leaning church. He was groomed to become a minister up until he turned eighteen, when he decided to pursue a career in banking. Fortunately he was pulled towards gospel music in his spare time. He uses his religious upbringing to preach between songs and to tap into the gospel roots of his heritage to involve the audience. His parents forbid any secular music from being played in their house (although it turned out that they were sneaking off to Elton John and Doobie Brother concerts). His mother caught Janeway with a Nirvana CD and threw it in the trash. Janeway claims “my mom did me a favor because I might not have found an interest, eventually, in soul music.” While he remains true to his faith, when Janeway witnessed a woman die in pain from cancer thinking that her “faith had abandoned her” for not loving Jesus enough, he backed off of dogmatic organized religion.
Much of the band’s 45-minute set was made up of mid-tempo songs that were the cornerstone of much of the sets performed by Otis Redding, James Carr or Otis Clay…songs like “These Arms of Mine” and “Try a Little Tenderness” – songs that start slow and build to big driving emotional crescendos. But when the band cranked into a song like “Sugar Dyed,” the caught fire and pulled the audience along with their funky horn, driving beat.
The other members of the Broken Bones share Janeway’s love for deep soul music. Guitarist Browan Lollar hails from the Muscle Shoals area and his resume includes a stint in Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit. Lollar is the unofficial band leader and his guitar playing has strong references to Steve Cropper while also incorporating some more innovative edgy, rock-oriented licks. Janeway always admired the two-man Memphis Horns approach to soul music and found two like minded people in Allen Bransetter and Ben Griner. to recreate that tight brass sound.
The band’s no nonsense drug and alcohol free lifestyle came through in their set. At one point in the show, Janeway said “Man…there’s a heavy smell of marijuana in this room tonight. Down where we come from we call that smell ‘Burnt Tires’.”
The Broken Bones mixed in a few covers with their own material; songs like Sam Cooke’s “Shake” and Otis Redding’s “Down in the Valley” and, for an encore, “Try a Little Tenderness”. I would argue that the covers were not as strong as their originals, and could be a reminder of how quickly a band like this can be labeled as a bar cover band doing adequate imitations of the original soul legends. In fact, ironically, I attended this concert with the son of the record label owner who produced most of Sam Cooke’s most popular singles.
St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ new album, “Half the City”, was produced by Ben Tanner, the person behind the very successful Alabama Shakes record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Tanner did a remarkable job of capturing the great soul influences absorbed by the band while, at the same time, bringing out the best of their new material and making the band sound contemporary, hip, and soulful in a powerfully effective way. Rumor has it that they’re currently working with Spooner Oldham, the great deep soul keyboard player who has partnered with Dan Penn over the years.
As Ann Powers wrote recently “(Soul Music) inheritance is a big deal in the South and St. Paul & the Broken Bones seem determined to earn the legacy it covets.”
I invited a friend of mine who is becoming a nationally well-known and respected rock and soul writer to join me for this concert. His response was “I prefer the old, real soul music.” I know that this person will have to admit once he hears a song like “Call Me” that soul music isn’t some archival art form, that in the hands of a band like St Paul & the Broken Bones, it’s reinventing itself in new ways. Perhaps it’s the perfect panacea for the drone of soulless electric pop music on the horizon.