As quickly, blithely, and painlessly as possible, let us now dispense with the obligatory SXSW recap.
Too much brisket. No vegetables. Splendid weather. Margarita-derived catastrophes, David Byrne sightings. T-shirts that read “Welcome to Austin—Don’t Forget to Leave.” Friends who decline to meet up because “I’m waiting for the drugs to take hold.” (Female) cab drivers who apologize for farting. And, oh yeah, lotsa dull-ass sweet-dude indie guitar rock. “I hate music,” a dear friend of mine (ostensibly in the music industry) has taken to declaring lately, often when confronted with perfectly competent but deeply boring buzz bands with names like Ghostland Observatory and Illinois. Someone please bring forth the jam.
Onto all of this, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings dropped like a bomb.
Been meaning to catch these guys forever, and I suspect I’m not alone there. The (yes!) Brooklyn-based retro-soul outfit, helmed by a brassy 50-year-old former Rikers Island guard who now proudly speaks of being anointed by fans as “the female James Brown,” is prime I Bet I’d Really Like That fodder for those weary of the sweet-dude rock thing. You are correct, and yet you have underestimated.
Commanding a makeshift stage under a filthy white tent on Saturday night, most of the crowd already battered and overstimulated and vitamin-deficient, Jones slapped us across the face with a bewildering, delirious joy that banished fatigue and cynicism alike. “I forgot what it’s like to hear real music,” one of my associates murmured, almost reverentially, as the Dap-Kings—a nearly softball-team-size cadre of suavely dressed dudes with a full, boisterous horn section—fired off technically tight and emotionally loose bursts of soul napalm. Consider the outrageous “My Man Is a Mean Man,” which blows by like all four discs of James Brown’s Star Time box set somehow mashed into three minutes and 16 seconds, the rubbery bassline walking from here to Jersey in four-second blips, the ecstatic rhythm guitar jolting it along, the second guitar slipping a subliminal, almost Afropop-ish hook beneath, and blaring horns darting in, out, and around.
Jones, meanwhile, unleashes a carefully controlled but delightfully unhinged howl powerful enough to reupholster furniture—while she dances with a succession of geeky, gawky, grabby guys she periodically yanks out of the crowd. Most of these bros conform to the nerdy rock-crit stereotype: the blank expression, the clunky moves, the prodigious guts resisting the arrest of their too-tight T-shirts. But for a few fleeting seconds they each lock in totally with Ms. Jones, a goofy synergy born of love and shock and awe and gratitude at what a massive revitalizing kick in the pants this band can be.
In return, Sharon always seems on the cusp of being wantonly groped onstage. Some of these guys get way too excited; maybe she oughta be more selective. “I just pick people!” she exclaims a few days later, back from New York but one day removed from a European tour. (They’ve started calling her the Queen of Funk over there, evidently.) “I’ll just look at their face, their eyes, and I can tell. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Come up,’ and they go like, ‘No, no,’ and I think, ‘OK,’ y’know? But usually I can just look at them and tell they’re ready to get up there. That’s my energy. I get a lot of energy from the audience. People just enjoy it. And you know they want to be a part of it.”
The Austin stage was set so high Sharon had no choice but to pull up taller dudes who could manage it; this all-male dance card resulted in a few instances of undesired freshness, a problem she has encountered before. “Uh, once in Baltimore, I was dancin’ with one guy and he grabbed my behind,” she recalls. “And I like literally had to take his hand away. But I always have control. I just told him, ‘Did I give you permission to put your hand on my body?’ And he was like, ‘But, but, but, but.’ It came to the point where he said, ‘But I’m gay!’ I’m like, ‘I don’t care! What’s wrong with you? Get off my stage!’ Hahahahahahahaha.”
Drunken people are another potential hazard, which can often exacerbate the
freshness. “I had one guy in London, this big guy, he got onstage, and he literally picked me up!” Sharon continues. “Grabbed me by my waist. And I thought we both was getting ready to fall off the stage.”
Sharon was born in Augusta, Georgia, just like James Brown, and he comes up often, onstage and in conversation. He wasn’t much for pulling random folks (and certainly not drunk dudes) onstage, but his sweat-soaked delirium is still the objective here. Carrying the torch, you see. “I’ve taken on that responsibility,” Jones says. “Everyone comes up to me and says, ‘I haven’t seen a show like this since the ’70s, since the Apollo. It take me back to the old days.’ That’s great. I like that.”
What she adds, maybe, is the spontaneity of crowd interaction, swapping JB’s meticulous choreography for a loose, boozy environment where she’ll adapt to any potential suitor’s dancing style so long as it doesn’t get too pornographic. “I think it’s just being raw—you get on that stage and feed off that energy,” she says. “I’ll dance like that person dances with me. I gotta continue to put that out there, let people see what a show was like back in the day. I tell them I don’t need all that smoke; we don’t have digital things on there enhancin’ my voice. Just real raw.”
Jones and the Dap-Kings have two records—the latest, Naturally, is dominated by “My Man Is a Mean Man” and a slow, grinding, cathartic reinvention of “This Land Is Your Land,” which brought the tent down in Austin. Look for a third full-length in the fall, and, after she’s through beguiling Europe again, more New York shows at which to dig what you always suspected you would and invariably will.
My music-hating friend, seeking respite from the cynicism that grips most SXSW survivors, asked me to ask Sharon where soul comes from. “To me soul just comes from within,” she offers. “It’s feeling something. Look at my band. Some people tell me, to have soul, you gotta be black. No you don’t. My band is Italian, Jewish, Spanish. But they play. They feel. Soul is somethin’, you gotta feel it. You don’t play music with soul. You gotta feel soul.”
Just take care you’re not illicitly feeling anything, or anyone, else.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings open for the Isley Brothers April 13 at United Palace Theatre, theunitedpalace.com.