Sharon Jones kissed me!
158. Better Things: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings with Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Bronson Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Wednesday May 11, 2011, $34.
It’s a given that every generation is going to throw up its own pop flibbertigibbets. While we may grouse about “Beiber Fever” or the vexatious Ke$ha, it’s wise to not overdo it and constantly go on one of those “darn kids today and their crap” harangues. The reality is that teen-targeted moppets are simply part of a never-ending conveyer belt that will always exist as long young’uns and a corporate marketplace are both table guests at the dinner party of pop culture.
They come, they annoy, and then end up in celebrity rehab or a Playboy spread — or simply drop off the radar like non-musical mini-sensations such as Mason Reese or Clara Peller. Have you forgotten Martika, Bobby Sherman, Fabian or Ada Jones (look her up)? You did? Sorry to have reminded you. (Okay, so I like Ada).
As a small balance against this cynical manufacturing and the cyclical faux-innocent childifying of pop music and culture comes someone like Sharon Jones. After slogging it out for decades in obscurity, she’s finally hit the big time in her mid-50s with her fourth album in tandem with her outstanding band The Dap-Kings, I Learned the Hard Way. It hit the #15 spot on the Albums Chart in her native US and placed similarly well in countries around the globe — all released on the great indie label, Daptone Records, in their Brooklyn home base.
Sharon Jones onstage in Ottawa at The Bronson Centre (all photos and scans by VA).
The Hardest Working Woman In Show Business has steadily built a fan base for her true-believer vintage-style soul and funk (she and the band prefer the word “romantic” over “retro”), backed by the sensational eight-piece Dap-Kings and two-piece Dapettes. Onstage, Sharon has an energy and vitality that would shame a singer half her age while the Dap-Kings are one of the best bands currently roaming the globe (“The baddest band on five continents—we’re working on the other two” boasted guitarist Binky Griptite at the gig’s start). Many performers would be wise to take a page or seven from her/their live notebook.
I will openly admit to only discovering Sharon and her band in 2007 in the same manner that a chunk of her current audience did: when the Dap-Kings gained larger press notes as the backing group on much of the late Amy Winehouse’s stunning Back To Black. Amy’s sophomore disc is probably my favourite album of the last eight years or so, and while her delivery of the often darkly humorous lyrics and old-school-yet-Massengill-fresh melodies make for compulsive repeat listening, the sharp yet fluid sound of her backing band certainly caught my ear as well.
I’ll eventually be writing about that show at length near the end of my series as no. 143, so all I’ll say about it for now is that that set made me a true believer. We both walked out with our heads spinning. Utterly magnificent.
“100 Days, 100 Nights,” live in Nashville 2009.
In the meantime, Jones and the DKs issued I Learned Hard Way, one of my Top Five Album choices for 2010 and an altogether more satisfying studio excursion in the “romantic” plains they roam.
Establishing one’s oeuvre in past, classic sounds of any stripe can be both blessing and curse. Having that built-in sense of genre familiarity can make it an easier sell to new recruits of a particular vintage or following but it also puts the artist in the unenviable, largely unwinnable position of having to compete with storied classics. It’s tricky to pull off over the long run, with the odds and history stacked against you.
That seemed to be the case of sorts for me with 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights. While I see the exceptional title track as effortlessly standing alongside its forebearers, many of the rest of the songs on the album, while strong, don’t really scale those same heights. It seems as if Jones and the gang were cognizant of this when making the follow-up. Hard Way is one of those rare beasts: an album that dap-dips back into a particular history, but features consistently strong material that pushes the record beyond mere “well-executed retro” and into the realm of simply “excellent.” It’s an album that stands on its own merits and is a complete work that demands to be listened to from start to finish. (Addendum note: I’ve since also discovered their killer second disc, Naturally, from 2005, which can stand alongside Hard Way).
Much of the material is also less super-charged, more nuanced and varied in tone, and pulls from a larger pool of songwriters both inside and outside the band. While staying within the aesthetic parameters they have set for themselves, one gets the feeling that Jones and the Dap-Kings wanted to take a few extra steps to create a strong, memorable album rather than simply create a collection of material that works well live. If that was a conscious attempt, crew, then you indeed pulled it off.
“I Learned the Hard Way,” live in Minneapolis 2010. Bass player, songwriter, and Daptone co-owner Bosco Mann wasn’t with the group at the Bronson, featuring Foxy H in his stead.
And now, here I was going to check out the material live, during the first full-on gorgeous Spring week of 2011 in Ottawa (a sharp contrast to our last trip to the Bronson, seeing Broken Social Scene on a snowy December evening). Arriving early to a quickly packed house on a warm, sunny, mid-May night, we got settled for the opening set by Austin, Texas’ Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears. I knew nothing about the seven-piece outfit but I sure was impressed with what I saw and heard. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Despite some serious sound problems that made 90% of all vocals and between-set chat incomprehensible, they went from receiving polite applause at the outset to people rushing the stage by song #5, exiting the stage after about a dozen numbers to a standing ovation from the crowd.
Sporting the classic two guitar, bass, and drum line-up in conjunction with a trumpeter and two sax players, the band played a scrappy, interesting hybrid of funk, blues, roots, and indie rock, delivering a series of short, sharp shocks that were packed with ideas but nicely no-frills. At one point, I thought that this is how mid-period Clash might have sounded had they come from Texas, particularly thinking of some combo of their covers of “Brand New Cadillac” and “Wrong ‘Em Boyo.”
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears with “Get Yo Shit,” Austin City Limits, 2009.
And static they weren’t. Various Honeybears bounced around — and sometimes off — the stage, most dramatically when one of the sax players grabbed a tambourine, popped into the crowd and then ran around the entire interior of the Bronson Centre, shakin’ it furiously. I guess that when you’re on tour with Sharon and the band, you learn a few things about showmanship.
Following their set, we wandered up to where the fine folks at the Bronson were letting the front-of-stage fill up, with yours truly and Cublet finding ourselves about three feet from centre stage. Unfortunately, I was an absent-minded doofus and had forgotten the camera at home … the shots I could have taken!! Damn, damn, damn. All hail the back-up cell phone cam.
Without much delay, the Dap-Kings took their place on stage, launching into their serious business of making music. Following a classic soul revue-style opening with the Dap-Kings’ instrumental warm-up, “The Reason,” followed by one solo number by each Dapette and DK bandleader and guitarist Binky Griptite (which, btw, is the best name ever for a guitar player), it was Star Time with Miss Sharon Jones. Bounding onto the stage in a short black, white, and gold fringe dress to a rapturous audience, she wasted no time diving right into the plaintive “If You Call.”
Binky Griptite, tuning up pre-show.
A decidedly extroverted, animated performer, she’s a lot of fun to behold close up, allowing one to really see the facial expressions, arched eye-brows and the like. During “Without A Heart,” she was trying to do this faux stern, cold-as-ice expression that matched the lyrics and made eye contact with me. Yours truly couldn’t stop grinning, though, which forced her into losing the act and breaking out in a smile’n’chuckle.
Continuing with “When I Come Home,” she began talking about the mid-’60s and her birthplace — Augusta, Georgia — with both song, time, and place dovetailing thematically into a hot rendition of fellow Augustin James Brown’s “There Was A Time,” allowing her to do The Funky Chicken, The Mashed Potato, and The Swim with aplomb. There was dancing aplenty on the stage throughout the night, and not just from Jones herself. One of her trademarks is getting a few fellows from the audience up to share in the hoofing while also having a group of frugging ladies form a dancing ensemble along with her to “I’m Not Gonna Cry.”
There are those who are simply natural performers, engineered for the stage and blessed with that x charisma chromosome. Sharon is one of them. It says something that when she steps onstage that one of the finest bands around fade into the background, so commanding is her presence, so compelling a performer.
While Sharon may have had to wait until later in life to catch her big break, she doesn’t seem bitter, instead basking in the moment and keen to go out and keep the momentum rolling. When she talked about finally being able to buy her mother a house in South Carolina but that she herself wouldn’t be returning home until August, she looked at audience members who groaned empathetically as if they had two heads. This is what she was born to do, and now that she has the audience, do it she will. She didn’t seem to be complaining.
“Road of Broken Hearted Men,” live at Austin’s annual at SXSW festival, 2010.
Her late-in-life success might make for a heart warming story, but when it comes to the tunes, ultimately who cares? The music and live show of her and the band should work independently of any backstory, and it does. You forget all that when caught up in the moment of the vibe and tunes. She’s no cheesy Susan Boyle, that’s for sure.
Following an encore that Griptite made us work for and that included a band introduction, Jones & the DKs greeted the faithful in the front lobby of the Bronson shortly after the set’s conclusion. A hush went over the room as she strode in, to which she began loudly complaining “Why is everyone so quiet?!” She and the band graciously met with the well-wishers, with Sharon hanging out for some time to chat, sign autographs and pose for pictures.
My signed copy of I Learned the Hard Way. “Love ya, Sharon Jones.” The feeling’s mutual, Sharon!
Amidst kicking myself further for having forgotten our good camera, I bought a vinyl copy of I Learned the Hard Way for Sharon to sign and got to speak with her for a while, with a part of the conversation going thusly:
VA: I’ve seen you live before and again tonight … I just don’t know how you do it.
Sharon: Well, when people come to the shows, they already know the songs. So when we perform them, we try to change it up and make it different for people so that they’re getting something that’s not just like the record. A different kind of experience.
VA: Yes, but it’s also better live because it’s you right there in front of us performing it.
Sharon: Awww …
And then she gave me a kiss! Getting a kiss from Sharon Jones: talk about better things!
Live in North Carolina, here’s I Learned the Hard Way’s single, “Better Things,” a phrase that could also speak for both the band’s increasing fortunes and sharpening catalogue of songs.
Next On Stage –> I’ll continue alternating between posting the final clutch of my “catch-up” entries (originally published on my former corresponding Open Salon.com blog) covering late 2011/early 2012 wherein I finally get to see Prince — and feel supremely cheated. Meanwhile, local hero Kathleen Edwards makes a triumphant hometown return in February of this year.
I’ll then zoom back to the distant past for one of my most memorable concerts ever: David Bowie in 1983.
© 2011-12 VariousArtists
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