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St. Paul & The Broken Bones bring updated sound upon return to Savannah

 

St. Paul & The Broken Bones bring updated sound upon return to Savannah

01 May 2017

 

 

The first time I saw St. Paul & The Broken Bones live in concert was on a sunny Saturday in June 2013. The young Birmingham, Ala., group had just been championed by NPR as one of the best unsigned bands in the country, and they were one of three outstanding Southern acts booked to play on a large outdoor stage in Nashville’s Centennial Park (the other two being Americana singer-songwriter Webb Wilder and songstress Ruby Amanfu).

It was free and open to the public, so lawn chairs, dogs and food trucks were everywhere. Heck, even Jack White was there, sitting cross-legged on the grass in front of me as a show of support for the official solo debut of his former back-up singer (Amanfu).

Just a few hours later, I found myself squeezed into a packed subterranean music venue aptly called The Basement to watch St. Paul & The Broken Bones play again, this time as the headliners on a bill that featured two new, rising old-school funk acts from Music City’s answer to the Daptone empire, the G.E.D. Soul Records label. With a 100-person standing-room-only capacity, it was the polar opposite of the massive open-air gig I’d just witnessed the band perform.

While their setlist for both shows was similar, in this tiny, sweaty and claustrophobic space, the rock-solid grooves of the group’s retro Deep South soul music scaled itself to almost dizzying heights. Their potent mix of time-honored cover tunes and carefully honed originals — which seemed cut from the same well-pressed piece of vintage sharkskin — went over like gangbusters.

A year or so later, St. Paul & The Broken Bones finally made it to the Hostess City, with a high-profile slot in the 2014 Savannah Stopover festival.

Since then, the group has toured internationally to great acclaim, and its lineup has swelled to eight pieces, including drums, guitars, keyboards, bass and a small horn section — not to mention the force of nature that is preternaturally gifted frontman and vocalist Paul Janeway. Eight months ago, they released their second LP, “Sea of Noise,” which found the group unexpectedly opting to investigate more nuanced and experimental soundscapes than was suggested by their previous “by the book” ruminations on the Stax/Volt legacy, including orchestrated strings and spacey, ambient-tinged interludes.

“Sea of Noise” also finds Janeway showcasing a much broader range of vocal stylings than in the past, from the cooing, come-hither sexuality typified by early Al Green and middle-period Marvin Gaye tracks to a more full-throated gospel shouting (alongside a full Memphis gospel choir, no less).

His lyrics as well are more openly poetic in scope and substance than on the group’s prior release. Says Janeway of his determination to craft more personal, literate lyrics: “If you’re going to say something, say something, and don’t waste your breath unless you feel like you’re saying something.”

All of this is to say that now, in 2017, St. Paul & The Broken Bones are still a Southern soul band, to be sure, but they have morphed organically into something distinctly broader than that rather limiting handle might imply.

Just a few days before the group returns to Savannah for a stop at the 1,200-seat Lucas Theatre, I caught up by phone with bassist/guitarist Jesse Phillips to find out what’s changed about his band since they were here last, what’s stayed the same, and what folks who catch their May 6 concert can expect.

Is the band’s perspective on playing live gigs any different now than it was back when I saw you play twice in one day?

Phillips: Well, we do really, really try to avoid playing two shows in one day. (Laughs.) Especially the way that Paul sings — you’re asking a lot of him to do two shows back to back.

We want to be mindful of protecting our health so that we can have any sort of longevity in this business. We’re on a bus now, so we can sleep on the bus and drive overnight. Then when you wake up, you’re already in the next city. Whereas it used to be we’d play a late-night show in a sweaty club with 10-foot ceilings for however many people. You’d make it back to a hotel and be lucky to get in bed by 3 in the morning. Most of the time, you’re back in the van by 9 a.m. to drive five or six hours and do the whole thing over again.

Things have changed a lot for us in that respect over the last three years or so.

Folks might assume that with the benefits of a huge sound system and light show, playing a 1,000-plus theater would be easier, but I believe it requires much more concentration and physical energy than playing a small club. Have you found that to be the case?

Phillips: I think our band is really lucky, because Paul takes up so much “space.” (Laughs.) You know, when you’re playing smaller clubs — especially the 200- to 300-capacity rooms we were in when we first started growing, it sometimes felt like the club was not gonna withstand the energy levels we were putting out. (Laughs.)

Paul would be so amped and so wild that he’d be givin’ it out to people and they’d be givin’ it right back just as loud and sweaty. It’s an awesome experience. It’s definitely different playing on a bigger stage. It can feel more isolating to your bandmates. There’s something comforting about being mushed up together on a tiny stage.

This new disc is a great departure from your first album. I hear a lot more influences from the Hi Records label and early 1970s Philly soul in it. Was there any concern from your management or label that you wer moving too far away from what fans might expect?

Phillips: I think ultimately we decided you have to trust your instincts and your ears and just go with it. As long as you are staying true to your roots, you can’t spend too much time worrying. But to say that wasn’t a concern would be inaccurate. It was our second record, and the first record had done really well for a little indie band from Birmingham. There was some pressure, you know …

Like, “Don’t monkey with the formula!”

Phillips: (Laughs.) Right, right. Those are valid concerns. But at the end of the day, what we wanted to do with the second record was prove that we could be a bit more cerebral about it.

You know, I made the cardinal sin of going online and reading comments from people who’d listened to or bought the second album on iTunes or whatever. (Laughs.) There were definitely a few people who … I won’t say they felt “betrayed,” but …

They were confused?

Phillips: Yeah. They were just missing the old-school, low-fi “go-for-it” style of our first album. Now, I totally get it, because I’ve been at that same place with bands that I like. But we toured in support of that first album for three years, basically. We played those songs hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times.

So, wanting to grow and explore other musical areas is a bit of a survival tactic. You’ve got to keep yourself interested and keep finding inspiration for yourself. That’s a side of things that a lot of people don’t see. What we collectively as a band have decided is to make the record you want to make and that you’re proud of, and let the rest take care of itself.

The Lucas is a totally seated room. Is that a challenge in itself, to look out and see everyone sitting down instead of up and dancing?

Phillips: It can be. I have a feeling Savannah will not be too difficult to convince to get up and dance. (Laughs.)

Ultimately though, if people want to get up and dance, shake a tail feather and make a ruckus, they’re gonna find a way to do it. Sometimes it just takes an extra song or two at the start of the show for people to feel comfortable leaving their seats.

If you had to preach about any particular soul or R&B artist or record you love to death but feel is unjustly overlooked, where would you point your fans?

Phillips: Sure! There are a lot of gems out there from what a lot of people think of as the Golden Era of R&B — the mid-’60s through the mid-’70s. Tons of stuff, rare cuts. Everybody loves Aretha [Franklin], everybody loves Otis [Redding], and Otis is a really big deal to us.

But I do think one guy who’s a little underappreciated and people don’t know as well as they should is Mr. William Bell. I mean, one of my favorite songs of all time is “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” which I think is a nearly perfect song. The way it feels, and the way it’s arranged and the way he sings it is just so cool. William’s still around, man …

He just played here at the Savannah Music Fest a few weeks ago, and I got to see him. He was absolutely spectacular.

Phillips: He’s still got it, man. He comes in with that low, rich voice and that great mic technique and everything … He’s the O.G., man. The real deal.

He wasn’t as big a hitmaker as some of the other guys from that Golden Era, but he was every bit on their level. A lot of people don’t seem to give him as many props as he deserves. If I could encourage any fans of R&B to look into anything, I would just say get out and see people like him while you still have the chance! He made records with Booker T and the MG’s, and wrote classic songs that people like Otis sang.

There’s not very many of those people left. If we can help spread the good word about people like him, we’re happy to do so.

IF YOU GO

What: St. Paul & The Broken Bones with Lonnie Holley

When: 8 p.m. May 6

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

Cost: $38.50

Info: lucastheatre.com, stpaulandthebrokenbones.com

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