Today I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to tell you about a band that people all over the country are going to be talking about in a few months. This is not quite a “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen” moment*. But maybe it is. The other night I saw the best live show I’ve seen at a club in 30 years. And I heard one of the greatest lead singers I will ever hear.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones are a soul band out of Alabama. They’ve been together only a year or so — they have just 38 minutes of original material. When they walked out on stage Halloween night at the Chop Shop, here in Charlotte, I had seen some YouTube videos, so I had an idea what was coming. My buddy Greg did not. Paul Janeway, the singer, grabbed the mike and hit his first note. Greg turned to me, and his eyebrows had flown halfway up his forehead.
“FUCK,” he said.
Janeway used to be a bank teller, and he looks like … a bank teller. For the Charlotte show he wore a charcoal suit with a bow tie and a pocket square. But he grew up on gospel in a Pentecostal church, where the music director had him sing backup instead of lead. Somewhere in Alabama there’s a Pentecostal music director who ought to be fired. That gospel music was still in his head when Janeway discovered the rough voices of rock and soul — Tom Waits and Nick Cave in one ear, Otis Redding and James Carr in the other.
This is what came out.
The videos don’t come close to what it’s like to see that band play live, for an hour and a half, in a hot room. By the end Janeway was toweling off after every song and the horn players were chugging beers and out in the crowd we were soaked through with sweat. I’ve been to hundreds of club shows. The last band that made me feel like St. Paul made me feel was Jason and the Scorchers back at the 40 Watt in Athens in the ’80s. The two bands play completely different music — Jason has this revved-up Hank Williams cowpunk thing going. But both bands play like they’re going for it all. St. Paul and the Broken Bones, on a Thursday night in front of a couple hundred people, acted like it was the last show they’d ever get to play.
In the middle of the set they played Otis Redding’s “Otis Blue” album in its entirety. (This is the kind of thing you do when you have 38 minutes of originals.) Otis is Janeway’s most obvious influence, and the band is set up like the classic Stax touring band — guitar, drums, bass, keys and two horns. At this point I ought to acknowledge that this soul band playing an entire Otis Redding record is made up of white guys. That’s not just something to gloss over. Anybody who tells you they don’t see color, that race means nothing, is lying to you. But music, more than anywhere else, is the place where race and culture mix and cross and blend until sometimes you can’t tell what belongs to who, which is good. It’s been that way from DeFord Bailey to Hendrix to the Muscle Shoals Swampers to Prince taking ownership of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” (Prince owns EVERYTHING.)
The point is, I’m always aware that St. Paul is a band of white guys playing soul music. I’m also aware that they are fantastic at it.
This is from the Charlotte show.
You might recognize the trademark James Brown fall-to-the-knees move. That scream comes from James, too. It’s clear that Janeway has watched the great soul singers as well as listening to them. But he does what all the greats do: he steals like an artist. He takes from all the things he loves and makes something of his own.
Maybe you won’t love St. Paul and the Broken Bones as much as I do — it would be hard for you to love them more, because I’m about ready to sell the house and follow them around the country. But part of that is personal. I grew up Southern Baptist, and I sang all those old hymns that were washed in the blood, and then I discovered all those old soul singers who sang about worldly things over music that was rooted in the church. Soul music speaks to me more than any other. It still hurts that I never got to see Sam and Dave in their prime. It hurts even more that I can’t sing like Al Green. What I guess I’m saying is, in a way St. Paul and the Broken Bones is the band I always wanted to be in, and Paul Janeway is the guy I always wanted to be.
The next-to-last song they played was “Land of 1000 Dances,” written by New Orleans R&B artist Chris Kenner, made a hit by a Mexican-American group called Cannibal and the Headhunters, made a hit again by Wilson Pickett, turned inside out by punk singer Patti Smith. The last song they played was “Try a Little Tenderness,” a big-band standard way back in the ’30s, covered by everyone from Sinatra to Three Dog Night, but made famous as one of Otis Redding’s biggest hits and his show-closer. Janeway kept walking off stage like he was done, but then running back on to shout a few more bars; it’s a move straight from Otis, and Otis lifted it from James Brown, and JB probably lifted it from some Pentecostal preacher, or maybe from Gorgeous George. If you happened to know the history of the last two songs St. Paul played, all the interracial and intercultural and intergenerational and interdenominational blurred lines that led to this white band from Alabama playing soul music that felt real and authentic, it might have made you smile a little wider. But you didn’t need to know any of that to sweat and holler and press together as the clock strolled past midnight on Halloween. You felt it in the music. You’d never forget how the music felt.
So today I evangelize for St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Go watch the YouTubes, and buy the songs, and God help you go see them play if they’re anywhere near you. They have a full-length record coming out in February. Six months from now they’ll be famous, and you’ll be cool because you knew them back when. But it won’t matter so much that you got to be cool. What will matter is, you got to hear the music.
*UPDATE: Reader Extraordinare Blu points out that Rosanne Cash, as usual, is way ahead of the curve. This is from June:
Now I feel even better.