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You know she’s got soul: Sharon Jones at the Egg.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Dance Your Ass Off

By Kirsten Ferguson

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley

The Egg, Jan. 22


‘Albany is in the house tonight,” sang Sharon Jones as she ran onstage at the Egg in a turquoise dress that glittered with fringe and sparkles. Backed by her eight-piece Brooklyn retro-soul revue the Dap-Kings, Jones belted out the heart-rending opening-number “If You Call” and then shimmied energetically through the more uptempo “Without a Heart.”

Both songs, and much of the set, were drawn from her latest album with the Dap-Kings, I Learned the Hard Way. As the title suggests, the album is rife with first-rate tunes about hard luck and romantic heartbreak. But live, Jones—whose short stature belies her power as performer—raises the energy level to the rafters on even the most world-weary songs.

A few songs in, she danced like a dervish across the stage during “When I Come Home” before executing a series of kitschy dance moves from decades past—including the Boogaloo, the Funky Chicken and the Tighten Up. The biggest wonder of the night may have been how she pulled off the James Brown- worthy moves in a pair of precarious-looking silver heels.

“We play all kinds of festivals, but it’s great to see you all sitting here and standing up when we finish,” Jones said, sounding truly grateful, as she thanked the almost-sold out crowd in the Hart Theatre (according to a later post on Jones’ Facebook page, the Egg was just 18 seats shy of selling out). “We’ve been doing this for a long time without the money. We do it for the love.”

While Jones’ album may be all about the hard times, her past year with the Dap-Kings has been pretty blessed—with a critically acclaimed recording, performances on Jay Leno and other late night talk shows, and an opening gig for Prince at Madison Square Garden last week that ended with Jones onstage and out-dancing the Purple One during his encore of “A Love Bizarre.”

Her moment has come, and it’s not so much a result of luck as it is the culmination of years of hard work and constant touring. A former Rikers Island prison guard, the 54-year-old Jones also did time in numerous wedding bands before meeting Gabriel Roth, the Dap-Kings’ bassist and co-founder of Daptone Records, a label dedicated to vintage-sounding 1960s-style soul and funk.

“The Grammys don’t recognize us because we’re independent. One day they’re going to have to recognize this independent label,” Jones said about Daptone before she ripped through an excellent version of her fed-up-with-love anthem, “The Game Gets Old,” faking a hook to punctuate the lyric, “I’m back in the ring with my boxing gloves.” She explained that “Ain’t A Child No More,” with its monster groove, was about a child too old to take abuse from her drunken parents, and teased the crowd before “Mama Don’t Like My Man” by showing off her vocal skills on just a taste of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” All great stuff, even if a few of her best songs were left out of the set (“Money,” “Better Things to Do”).

As Jones pulled women from the audience onstage to dance with her before the end of the show, it was not hard to see what must have made her the best wedding singer of all time—a level of showmanship and drive to entertain that could get even the most boring party started. “Meet me by the merch table,” Jones implored after an encore of her signature “100 Days, 100 Nights” and the sweet-Jesus gospel of “Answer Me.” Sure enough, after the show there was Jones, making her way through the lobby of the Egg to meet fans at the merch table.

The Albany audience was one of the first on this tour to see what Jones and the Dap-Kings are calling their “Soul Review,” featuring opener Charles Bradley, a fellow Daptone Records performer, members of his Menahan Street Band and backup singers, the Dapettes. Bradley, with a James Brown jones but shakier looking knees, belted out some impressive sounding soul on tracks from his recently released, No Time for Dreaming.


Neighborhood of Make-Believe

Esperanza Spalding

The Egg, Jan. 23

It’s tempting to write 400 words on Esperanza Spalding’s Afro alone—that incredible gravity-defying orb, which, like the one belonging to Erykah Badu, seems the indelible mark of superior soul—but that wouldn’t leave much for her voice, chops and ensemble. Not that presentation doesn’t have quite a lot to do with Spalding’s latest project. It’s just that the loft of her Afro is only one element in the whimsical stagecraft associated with her Chamber Music Society tour.

It’s been two years since Spalding’s performance at Schenectady’s Music Haven Stage, and in that short time the 26-year-old has gone from up-and-coming wunderkind to celebrated star of contemporary jazz. Chamber Music Society has her nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy, and she’s already performing with the confidence of a Grammy winner.

The Afro first emerged before the curtain had been raised, Spalding sauntering to an armchair situated stage left. In a classier rendition of the Mr. Rogers routine, she shed her coat and heels, parked herself in the chair and poured herself a glass of red wine. As she raised her glass to the crowd, the curtain raised, revealing a string trio, which commenced the opening number. She wandered over barefoot, picked up her comparatively enormous upright bass and began to play. What followed was a sort of theatrical dream sequence, the glass of wine opening the realm of Dionysus, which only closed at the end of the second set, when Spalding returned to the chair, put on her coat and wandered off.

The material from Chamber Music Society draws on Spalding’s classical training but it unfolds rather as a saucy hybrid of her soul-laced jazz and chamber sensibilities. The ensemble is rounded out by piano and drums, with the cellist and another vocalist singing harmonies. By now, the fact that Spalding is an accomplished bassist seems almost incidental, as it’s her voice that steals most attention. I hesitate to use the word “scat”—what with its smarmy Radio Deluxe connotations—to describe her sound-based vocal work, but it was in this mode that she riffed her way through the album’s dense, elliptical compositions.

Certain tunes, like “Little Fly” and “Apple Blossom,” were self-contained lyrical gems, but Spalding’s most impressive pieces were the unruly, elemental instrumentals that blurred the lines between composition and improvisation and opened to solo sections in unorthodox places. Supported by a bed of strings and Leo Genovese’s fine piano playing, Spalding moved with joyful abandon around the stage, ad-libbing across her vocal range, unlocking graceful bass solos, and tapping polyrhythms against the body of her instrument.

Chamber Music Society (and the accompanying theatrics) is the kind of project that most established artists drop mid-career to flip the script, not as a sophomore effort to establish one’s name. Somehow, Spalding’s already earned this though, making her ambition at least as interesting to watch as her burgeoning musicianship. I say, give Justin Bieber the Best New Artist Grammy. Spalding’s already ready for something more.

—Josh Potter


Funnin’ Around

The Wiyos

Caffe Lena, Jan. 21

Gravitas? Not these guys. They have no use for it. They laugh, and the world laughs with them. More than anyone else, The Wiyos, a Hudson Valley-based trio of madcap musicians, can lay claim to the mirthful mantle of Spike Jones and His City Slickers, whose whistles, cowbells, gunshots, and Looney Tunes-like vocal effects satirized Tin Pan Alley hits and classical works during the 1940s and ’50s. Unlike Jones, though, The Wiyos, drawing on a background of string band music, jug-band blues, and swing, write much of their material, which they deliver with Vaudevillian theatricality. Last Friday it all added up to one zany show.

The band, who named themselves after the 1880s Irish street gang the Whyos, formed in New York City in 2002 and honed their entertaining skills busking there and in New Orleans. Within a few years they were asked to play the Newport Folk Festival, and from there it was on to the Kennedy Center Arts Festival, the Lincoln Center Out-Of-Doors Festival, and eventually a seven-week stint in 2009 opening for Bob Dylan. Currently the band consists of Mike Farkas on harmonica, kazoo, banjo, and washboard, Seth Travins on string bass, and former Hunger Mountain Boy Teddy Weber, who joined the band in 2007 and later replaced founding member Parrish Ellis on guitar.

The Wiyos opened with “Promenade,” an unlikely song about a Scottish dance hall back in the day. Travins swatted his bass with a drum brush, Weber fingerpicked his semi-hollow-body electric guitar, and Farkas, an adept harmonica player, sang and blew hot riffs that would have been more at home in a Chicago-style blues band. Very strange.

Weirder yet was a long medley, loosely based around the movie The Wizard of Oz, which Farkas began on harmonica with a minor-key version of “Over the Rainbow.” Fast and slow movements alternated, and among other things Frakas sang through a bullhorn and hand-cranked a siren at seemingly random intervals, the band played a disjointed version of “If I Only Had a Brain,” and Farkas, adopting a Brooklyn accent, did an impression of Burt Lahr’s famous portrayal of the Cowardly Lion.

Their only clunker was “Airport Baggage Handlers Suck,” a litany of complaints about luggage checkers. C’mon guys, you’ve opened for Dylan, now you’re jetting around to gigs other musicians would kill for, and you kvetch about this? Suck it up, already.

The opening act, the Honey Dew Drops, offered a pleasing mix of bluegrass and originals in an early country music vein. Laura Wortman’s strong lead vocals and the smooth picking and harmony singing of Kaggey Parish and Barry Lawson bode well for their musical careers. Look for the trio at the GottaGetGon Festival in Ballston Spa in May.

—Glenn Weiser

The Family Band

Photo: Martin Benjamin

The Felice Brothers brought their busker chic to MASS MoCA last Saturday (Jan. 15). The quartet, who got their break playing subway platforms in New York City, have built themselves quite a name on the indie-folk scene, having played at the Newport Folk Festival and Bonnaroo. (You might also recall they opened for the Dave Matthews Band last summer. NBD.) The band’s latest LP is titled Mix Tape.





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