When St. Paul and the Broken Bones played the 9:30 Club back in November of 2016, my editor asked me to interview their bassist Jesse Phillips. It went so badly it was essentially a meditation on how not to communicate with another human being. In either a kindhearted effort to let me redeem myself, and/or a keen love of literary train wrecks, I was asked to review their show at The Anthem this past Sunday night. So after a quick 14 hour day at work, in a haze of bourbon and exhaustion, I camped out stage left down front and tried to not make eye contact with the bassist, not recalling until just now writing this that it was a phone interview.
My first recollection of the band was seeing them on YouTube. It was recommended I give Vulfpeck’s “1612” a listen (a recommendation I can pass along to you,) and the next video in the queue was St. Paul and the Broken Bones playing what is now their marquee hit, “Broken Bones and Pocket Change” at Music City Roots back in 2012. Well done, YouTube. My childhood having been colored to saturation by my parents folk, gospel, blues, soul, and R&B record collections, I take to a tight horn section like a fish to water; make no mistake, this may be one of the tightest horn sections touring today.
In larger bands, you have elements build of multiple instruments, all of which lock in together. A three piece pop punk trio can’t really form factions because it’ll just end up being two against one (or in the case of The Police before they broke up, three-way sectarian aural violence.) But with a half dozen guys on stage, at least a few of them have to be working together at any given time (lest you want to play nu metal.) For a soul band, you need a horn section with as little daylight as possible between each player, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones is basically brass laminated on brass. Listening to them is like listening to Willie Mitchell’s guys at Hi Records having a blast between takes recording Green Is Blues.
Speaking of which, let’s take a moment to discuss the lead singer Paul Janeway. On the surface, he looks like Erik Charles Nielsen in an Al Green Halloween costume, complete with resplendent, shimmering caftan. I’m going to say it again, resplendent. He came out on stage like George Clinton, only after the band is set up and locked in a groove to maximize dancing time. I know the impulse is to compare Janeway to Otis Redding, and it’s hard to miss the heavy Stax influence coming from the rhythm section, but to me Janeway is more Al Green than either the Reverend Al Green or Redding himself.
While I’m working my way around the band, let’s talk about the rhythm section. Phillips, regardless of how bad a conversation I had with him, is a powerhouse on bass. He sounds like Donald “Duck” Dunn reborn, which is apt given how close his playing is (both physically and in tone) to Al Gamble’s keyboards. Meanwhile, Gamble sits in the back, driving melodies out across the stage like Booker T. Jones. Hard to imagine a more effective pairing than aping the low end and phrasing of the Mar-Keys. The marriage of the sounds of legendary Memphis label bands isn’t just infectious, it’s downright terminally funky. This is music engineered to make you move, though in the case of the crowd, that might mean swaying arrhythmically, clapping on the one and the three.
The music comes first. Which isn’t as intuitive as you’d think in a live show. Occasionally band members would slip back stage for a drink only to return to watch their guys jam, impressed by the chops and spurred on by technical acumen. How often can you remember seeing a most of a band walk off stage during a drum solo, and coming back out to admire their bandmate’s performance, rather than launching into the next number? Sunday it happened at least twice, the latter time building into a regimented rather than sprawling jam that included a refrain from OutKast’s “So Fresh, So Clean” (itself a sample of “I’ll Stay” by Funkadelic.)
I wandered out of the club at the tail end of their encore, closing of course with “Broken Bones and Pocket Change.” Janeway raced through the crowd and up into the balcony along with security and photographer, singing the whole way. It was impressive, as I can barely walk and talk let alone sing like that while attempting to move. But the band stayed on stage, anchoring everyone bone deep with successively layered hooks, and building a sound for Janeway to run up and down making the stairs in the back of the club all but unnecessary. People love Janeway’s voice, but it’s the sound of Southern soul that keeps us moving.
Words by Jeb Gavin, Photos by Clarissa Villondo