By Jeb Gavin
A stellar, aging front man and his much younger, mediocre band: what conclusions should one draw about the future of the genre? Watching Lee Fields move across the stage like he did at the 9:30 Club Thursday night is to see showmanship embodied. At least, it’s to see what showmanship can and should be, particularly in contrast to his backing band The Expressions. While Fields stalked the stage in a bedazzled, salmon colored satin blazer and black satin slacks the band barely shuffled in place to the beat. They looked more like an out of sorts backdrop for the real show rather than an engaged touring band. Soul music, unlike most pop music, relies on the party atmosphere of its shows. If you can’t go out, dance and have a good time, why should anyone care about soul music? If no one cares, what happens to soul music when all the old soul singers are gone?
The past 10 years has been a weird time for certain genres. Contemporary R&B broke some years past into blues and a lukewarm mixture of soul and light jazz. Only recently, and with an infusion of life from alternative and indie music has R&B returned to relevance. Rap has now given over entirely to pop music; mainstream rappers are spitting verses over EDM (check the drops in Eminem’s latest track “Rap God” if you’d care to dispute this.) But soul music remains largely unchanged, in part because the showmanship matters to the genre as much as the music, and the effort involved in putting on a spectacle has increased faster than the effort required to record the music. Elements of it make their way into new, brilliant acts like Janelle Monae, but soul singers are a rapidly aging group, with Fields, Bobby Womack, and Dap Kings front-woman Sharon Jones at the front of the pack. Smaller bands flare up, release a great track or two, and then disappear without more than a few live tour dates to their name. What happens when it’s just the Dap Kings, or more to the point, the Expressions, sans charisma?
Perhaps I’m holding the band to an absurdly high standard (specifically, the J.B.’s.), but the stage presence is entirely on the front man. The drummer’s in the pocket most of the time, and the bassist is clearly running things, but the man on keys looks to be working one-handed the entire night, as though he’s going over tour finances in his head as he plays. There’s a timidness, an uptight attitude you can almost hear, but you can definitely see. The guitarist was throwing off some pretty deft licks, but there’s no cohesive confidence as a band. I couldn’t tell if the band is keenly aware of the thinness of the audience, or the thinness of the audience was a direct result of a reticent band. When Fields has the crowd singing along, waving their arms to “Love Comes and Goes,” the band should be in step instead of counting in their heads. Fields looks as though he’s preaching to the converted with a chorus full of agnostics behind him.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pn9cvh9WDMI
I’m hoping soul doesn’t go the way of swing music, though the similarities are there. Both genres rely on an impressive live show with an engaged audience, and soul is increasingly seen as a throwback genre the way people assume swing is retro. The swing boom in the late ’90s was a collusion of sorts between various ad campaigns and a pretty sizable community of rockabilly and ska bands interested in stepping up their game. Three years later, despite the commitment of the musicians, the fad died and all but a few stalwarts went back to the punk rock sub-genres from whence they came. It wasn’t a resurgence of swing, it was a death rally; the last day of lucidity to say goodbye to loved ones. Now we get one another copies of the latest Big Bad Voodoo Daddy Christmas album as a perverse joke presents like menorah shaped pasta. But swing music was retro because it was guys re-appropriating a genre, cramming forty years of micro-genres into a single musical entity and calling it “classic.” You never saw 80-year-old band leaders headlining swing shows, so no matter how fun they might’ve been, it felt ersatz. With soul you’ve got the real thing, Lee Fields, right there singing in front of you. And despite geographic differences leading to different flavors of soul, today’s soul music isn’t a compendium of different aspects of different eras mushed up together like an aural Frankenstein’s monster. But what if Fields isn’t there?
There are genres which survive in their own niches. Contrast swing with Irish step dancing music, polka, or rock steady – the world is kind to music which marginalizes itself because no one takes enough notice to crush it entirely out of existence. Unlike polka though, soul was the progenitor, the Ur-modern pop music. Soul took gospel and made rock and roll possible, and a half full rock club doesn’t bode well for its future. The soul diaspora starts with bands lacking their front man, and leads to the soul revue being the Gros Michel of live concerts, with old clips of the TAMI Show on YouTube as our weirdly flavored banana candy. The party atmosphere and spectacle will survive in acts like Miguel’s, the earnest, public output of emotion from guys like Frank Ocean (who could be the next Solomon Burke, if he were to start eating.) But soul itself is fading, and no one wants to step up to the mic and make people care again. There are genres which need new blood, and soul needs it desperately. I’ve hypothesized before, soul could do with a shot of whatever is going around in contemporary country music, but it needs to happen now. (The precedent is there. Check out Light in the Attic Records’ Dirty Laundry compilations if you don’t believe me, particularly Bettye Lavette doing Kenny Roger’s “What Condition My Condition Is In.”)
Lee Fields puts on a hell of a show, but he’d probably put on a hell of a show if he were in sweat pants, singing on a street corner over a boombox. He’s been doing this for 43 years. I hope he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, because as it stands now, should Lee Fields give up the ghost, he may well take soul with him.
Post scriptum: I am aware of neo-soul, new jack swing, and all the other late ’80s/early ’90s attempts to refresh soul music. They were more an outcropping of contemporary R&B, soul in name only. I choose to recall fondly certain artists, but largely forget this evolutionary offshoot in the same way we don’t concern ourselves too much with what other species of humans would be doing, had they survived as Homo sapiens did. Nice try, didn’t stick, on to the next thing. That said, if It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia wants to do more episodes featuring the music of Boyz II Men, I’ll probably, definitely watch them.