From Ace Cannon and the Bill Black Combo to the Mar-Keys and Booker T. & the MGs to Willie Mitchell and his Hi Rhythm band, Memphis has a long, proud history of instrumental R&B. The Bo-Keys are notable for being intimately connected to this legacy and also, as their moniker suggests, paying tribute to it.
Originally conceived as a one-off backup band for soul star Mack Rice, the current incarnation of this Memphis-style rhythm section is made of three veterans of the city's soul scene -- organist Ronnie Williams, who played on Stax sessions for artists such as Rufus Thomas and the Rance Allen Group; drummer Willie Hall, who played with the Bar-Kays and on Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul; and guitarist Charles "Skip" Pitts, who toured with the Isley Brothers and Wilson Pickett before laying down those memorable wah-wah chords on Hayes' "Theme from Shaft." The group also includes three younger counterparts -- trumpeter Marc Franklin, who has backed up many area soul stars in recent years; ubiquitous saxman Jim Spake, who has played with everyone from Al Green to Ike Turner to Alex Chilton; and bassist Scott Bomar, the "Bo" in the band, who is perhaps best known for his work with bands such as Impala and the Tearjerkers.
For The Royal Sessions (Yellow Dog; Grade: B+), the group's debut album, the sextet holed up at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studio last spring. The result is a record that ably pays tribute to the likes of Booker T. and the MGs and the Mar-Keys but with a more modern twist. The tracks on The Royal Sessions are longer than the '60s norm. Most are over four minutes, with a couple clocking in at over six minutes, leaving more room for jazz-like flourishes and soloing. The 10-track selection mixes originals with covers.
The opening "Coming Home Baby" sets the tone, with Franklin, Spake, and Williams roaming over a steadily percolating rhythm and Pitts' wah-wah guitar stabs. Most of the record's instrumentals are in this party-band vein, with exceptions being the Latin-flavored "Spanish Delight" and the wistful slow-burn groove of Williams' "I Remember Stax." The band original "Deuce and a Quarter" is punchy old-school soul with vocals punctuating the groove, while the record's most recognizable covers are also partly vocal: On a memorably smoky rendition of Jimmy Smith's "Back at the Chicken Shack," conversational asides ("I gotta get me some of them ribs"; "Hey, bring me the hot sauce!") and the sound of glasses (or beer bottles) tinkling add some communal charm, while the band's version of James Brown's "Doing It To Death" is peppered with JB-style interjections ("Let's have us a funky good time!").
The Royal Sessions adds yet another fine title to an impressive, growing catalog for locally connected Yellow Dog Records, which has previously released roots-oriented recordings from artists such as the Bluff City Backsliders, Mark Lemhouse, and William Lee Ellis.
Like the Bo-Keys, the recently formed Voodoo Village is an instrumental sextet evoking the classic Memphis rhythm-section tradition, though from a different angle. Rather than an ace chitlin-circuit house band, Voodoo Village sounds like a slick outfit you'd expect to see at a Los Angeles jazz club.
Featuring members of the long-defunct but extremely well-regarded in its day local band Come In Berlin (keyboardist Ernest Williamson, sax player Pat Register, bassist Dave Smith, and guitarist Niko Lyras, who also produced the album), Voodoo Village evokes giants of jazz fusion like Spyro Gyra, Weather Report, and the Yellowjackets on its debut, Funk Soup (Grade: B). This is also the debut for a new local record label, 40 West, an offshoot of longtime local distributor Select-o-Hits.
With keyboardist Kurt Clayton and drummer Ed Cleveland rounding out the group, Voodoo Village finds a fairly easy marriage of the soulful heritage of instrumental Memphis and the chops-oriented standards of the genre. While some tracks lapse into the elevator-ready, TV-drama-theme-song styles that fusion skeptics tend to associate with the genre, the band generally avoids that trap. The opening "Voodoo Village" flirts with that kind of slickness before locking into an irrepressible groove, setting up a formula that permeates the album.
Other tracks tackle different aspects of the sound: "Bounce Wit It" shows an adeptness with the hip-hop and modern R&B rhythms that its title suggests, while the closing "After the Sermon" ends the record on a wistful, gospel-inflected note. But the centerpiece is a fine cover of Herbie Mann's notable late-'60s standard "Memphis Underground," where the band stakes a claim to its own local heritage, with Register paying tribute to the late flutist by taking over his instrument.
Funk Soup (which features album art from local artist Lamar Sorrento) also comes with a DVD that features concert footage filmed at the Memphis Drum Shop. Ultimately, this nearly 70-minute epic is, like most fusion exercises, probably not up every rock-and-soul fan's alley, but for devotees of the genre, it's clearly a keeper.
On Lifelong Turbulation (self-released; Grade: B), jam-flavored "blues" group Minivan Blues Band does interesting and rewarding things with the form. Their largely acoustic sound is friendly and communal, the frequent (and well-done) Latin touches (see "Albino Trout") adding a flavor one might not associate with front-porch roots music.
Though Lifelong Turbulation opens with a blues cover, J.B. Lenoir's "The Whale Has Swallowed Me," the rest of the album is made up of originals, with writing credits split among band members Jonathan Ciaramitaro (guitar, mandolin, vocals), Joe Schicke (guitar, mandolin, vocals), James Ray (guitar), and J.D. Westmoreland (bass, vocals), with drummer Paul Buchignani rounding out the lineup. This music evokes comparisons to the rootsier side of '60s and '70s rock (the Band, Neil Young, even Michael Hurley in its likably oddball bluegrass impulses) more so than straight-up blues.
The Minivan Blues Band will join Yamagata, Parallel Parker, and another local act with a new record, Stout, this Friday, December 19th, at the New Daisy Theatre.
Stout's On the Rocks (Zarr Records; Grade: B-) is also roots-rock with "classic-rock" leanings but of a different variety. Less modest than Minivan Blues Band, Stout plays Southern rock with the feel of modern AOR, evoking the likes of the Black Crowes, Counting Crows, and Train. The five-piece, which is often led by member Craig Schuster's piano, adds plenty of idiosyncratic elements to give the band a style of its own, from the gospel undertones on "Down by the Riverside" to the bongos on "Harmony in Dreams." (By the way, have there been any other "Southern rock" bands that prominently feature bongos?)
When the band stretches out for Phish-style jams, the result is pretty generic, but when they stick to their soul-flavored songwriting, the result, while perhaps a bit too overstated for these ears, carries a lot of potential.