Soulful Sounds Warm a Frigid Friday Night in Columbia City (Photo Gallery)
It’s too hasty to really say that Seattle’s in the middle of some sort of original soul-music renaissance, but the groundswell’s right there for everyone to see and hear.
Wheedle’s Groove (the CD comp and the documentary) opened up the door a few years ago by shining a spotlight on Seattle’s fertile 1960′s and ’70′s R&B heyday, and the recent successes of Allen Stone and Pickwick have proven that even the most jaded hipsters can find their bodies and hearts swayed by the right groove. Great dance music’s nothing new in Seattle, of course, but soul music built around singers with the chops to sing it and the nuance to deliver it sans American Idol-esque up/down vocal fuckery? Not exactly the most plentiful of commodities in general.
The folks at Sound on the Sound, that smartest of smart local-music-blog cookies, understand. They programmed a great evening of soul-inflected pop at Columbia City Theater Friday night, with an unerring ear and likely without one eye cocked at some perceived Burgeoning New Scene. It’s too early to know if lives were changed, but booties were shaken. And in this town, that in and of itself is pretty momentous.
Prom Queen may not’ve been the most obvious opener for a night of R&B-flavored music, but that didn’t make the sounds she generated any less than awesome. This solo project from musician/comedienne Leeni veers away from the video-game blip pop that won her notoriety amongst the gaming community, placing her metaphorically but squarely into the moodily-lit corner of a fictitious bar in some old crime drama. Her sparse, mournful style seems born from a place where broken dreams and dark passions swirl just beneath a shadowy surface (not for nothing did the event poster dub her style ‘Lo-Fi David Lynch’). Leeni/Prom Queen accompanied her plaintive singing with guitar and occasional (self-programmed-and-played) pre-recorded symphonettes. Best of all, she augmented her battery of sultry original material with ingenious arrangements of modern pop songs: Anyone who can polymorph the bloated Guns ‘n Roses power ballad, “November Rain,” into a gorgeous film-noir exhortation of hard-won hope earns canonization papers from this corner.
Middle-slotter Lucas Field seemed a little rattled by some pre-set technical bugs, but quickly brought things home with some easy-grooving, very seventies-flavored pop. Field used to be in indie-rock band Low vs. Diamond, but he’s been cutting his teeth as a soul musician fronting his combo at South Lake Union’s Laadla restaurant for about a year now. The steady gigging shows. He worked the keyboards with the swing of Stevie Wonder or Billy Preston Friday, and his current crop of original songs–warm and affectingly funky, all–displayed more character and distinction than his old band’s material ever did. His band’s imaginative take on the Shuggie Otis/Brothers Johnson psych-soul classic “Strawberry Letter 23” pretty much sealed the deal, too. Tiffany Wilson–a singer whose effortless voice suggested a less affected, more subtly sensual Mary J. Blige–proved the most effective secret weapon of an already-tight ensemble. More please, guys.
Shaprece has been paying her dues for the last two years as a vocal gun-for-hire with Mad Rad, Fresh Espresso, and Blue Sky Black Death (to name a few), but Friday night she proved she’s more than got the goods to conquer the world on her own, thanks. She’s a devastatingly complete package as an entertainer, with versatile and limber Alicia-Keys-inspired pipes, unforced onstage affability, girl-next-door good looks, catchy and creative original material, and the kind of charisma that could well translate to a huge audience.
Shaprece’s recorded output reveals a wealth of influences from hip-hop to orchestral pop to clattering breakbeat (the stuttering and brilliant “Dangerous” would make a better James Bond theme song than anything you’ve heard in a real Bond flick in the last ten years), but on Friday things hit a more elemental vibe. Her Friday gig was very much a family affair, with her dad Joshua Robinson contributing a rich bed of keyboards and sister Dee Dee matching her readily on backing vocals. The rest of her great backing band, meantime, swung in sweetly old-school funky style. Elements of Sade’s phrasing and cosmopolitan cool came to the vocal table, but with a welcome rush of earthy soulfulness: Unlike the aforementioned smooth-soul siren, Shaprece bleeds when she’s emotionally cut (and she’s not above firing a spliff on the awesome THC-hazed jam, “Lift,” either.).
None of the folks gracing CCT’s stage on Friday fit neatly into the revivalist-soul pigeonhole. Prom Queen’s take on girl-group sounds is imbued with wounded strangeness, Field offset his warm velour soul with engaging indie-pop tics, and Shaprece’s stylistic restlessness embraces the future with as much vigor as the past. But all three acts brought with them a refreshing reliance on honest-to-God vocal interplay (much of my evening was spent pressed to the voice PA, happily) and songs with some melodic meat to go with the rhythmic backbone.
I’m not going to begin to predict what this home-grown purple patch of groove’s gonna lead to. The Seattle soul revolution–if such a thing ever comes to pass–will not be blogged, programmed, or second-guessed to oblivion. Whether it becomes a full-on tectonic shift in Northwest music, or whether it just stays at a bubbling, booty-shaking simmer indefinitely, it’ll play through live; in the warmth of a club, with human beings singing and playing and dancing their desires and joys and pains. That’s what soul music’s all about, and what Friday encompassed, in a nutshell.