Every now and then I feel like, well in the immortal words of the wicked Wilson Pickett:
“The groove is much too strong,
You can’t hold out long,
So get up, don’t fight it,
You’ve got to feel it.”
When that feeling comes over me, I’ve got to feel that soul power. And as much as I love the old records by Otis, Wilson, Marvin and Aretha, sometimes I need the enhanced power of more modern recording technology and new takes on the classic sounds. I’m writing this on a dismal, dank, rainy day when I need something that’ll fire up my evening. These albums should do the trick.
Siggi Schwartz and The Legends – Soul Classics
Please DO NOT Google Siggi Schwartz until you listen to this CD. Siggi is a German rock guitarist, and almost nothing else he’s recorded is like this collection of covers of some of the greatest soul classics from the sixties. It kicks off strongly with a fiery version of “Sweet Soul Music” that defies you to sit still and never slows down. Siggi’s band roars through fourteen sizzling cuts drawn for the most part from the Stax-Atlantic catalog with a few for good measure from Motown. Even the Motown tunes are from the grittier soul end of the catalog, such as a couple from Junior Walker, and are thus consistent in tone with the Stax flavored majority.
Siggi assembled an extraordinarily capable rhythm section, horns and vocalists who seem to be having a blast making these oldies new again. The arrangements here are all respectful of the originals, but modern recording equipment and a little rock attitude from the guitarists gives the songs a punch of vitality. I saw Otis Redding, Arthur Conley, Junior Walker, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett live back in the day, and I think those guys would love singing in front of Siggi’s guys. Besides, the singers Siggi assembled more than hold their own with this material. Benefiting especially well from Siggi’s approach are tunes like “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Fa Fa Fa,” “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” and the aforementioned “Sweet Soul Music.”
Just a note about the rock attitude of the guitarists: Siggi keeps the guitar solos crisp and brief, so they add kickin’ spice without overpowering the soul stew. Methinks King Curtis would approve.
Tower of Power – Great American Soulbook
Tower of Power – 40th Anniversary (Live)
Since the early 1970’s, the Bay Area of California’s Tower of Power has consistently been one of if not the hottest soul-funk bands in the known world. Featuring the premier horn section in contemporary music, a kickass rhythm section and strong vocalists, TOP focused on original material. I loved their stuff, yet couldn’t help wonder what they might do with classic soul. In recent years, they’ve given us the best of both worlds with this pair of recordings.
Great American Soulbook samples catalogs from Motown, Stax, Philly International and LA creating a varied program from gritty southern soul like Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You” and Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful” to silky romantic soul like “Me and Mrs. Jones” or “(Heaven Must Have Sent)Your Precious Love” to Motown bounce like “It Takes Two.” Like Siggi’s album, the arrangements are respectful but not copycats of the originals. While restrained at times, the great TOP horn section is right there whenever you need them.
Larry Bragg acquits himself admirably as lead vocalist throughout. Still, he’s joined to good effect by duet partners Tom Jones, Sam Moore, Joss Stone (twice) and Huey Lewis on five of the numbers. Interestingly, Sam Moore does not sing on his own hit, “I Thank You,” but rather enlivens his old label mate Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful.” I think it was a good switch.
(Author’s note – despite covering similar ground, there is only one song duplication on TOP’s Great American Songbook and Siggi’s Soul Classics: “I Thank You.”)
40th Anniversary (Live) is a whole ‘nother thang. There’s a great scene in the recent James Brown biopic where the “Godfather” explains how every member of his band, regardless of the instrument, is in reality playing the drums. It’s the birth of funk. Every player is responsible for driving the rhythm. And that’s certainly the case for Tower of Power in this performance of many of their signature tunes recorded live at Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.
The rapid fire bursts of the horns are as funky as the drums, bass and guitar. From the get go on “We Came To Play” the call goes out, “so horns, why don’t you sssstick it.” By the time the singer implores the crowd with “let’s go dowwwn to the nightclub” to start the fourth cut, you may feel like your hair is on fire.
Just about the time you’re out of breath, the band gives you a “slow dance.” Don’t waste the chance to catch your breath and hold your baby tight because in just a couple of minutes the heat’s going right back up again. The show is wisely paced with a couple of their early, more traditional soul sounding hits like “This Time It’s Real” and “You’re Still A Young Man” inserted here and there for rhythmic diversity. Still this concert is a showcase for soul-funk Tower of Power style. As Wilson Pickett said, “You better get on up and get that groove…don’t fight it, feel it.”
Cracked Ice – Soul Noir
Cracked Ice is a band organized by Crispin Cioe, who must be one of the hardest working men in show business over the last few decades. He’s played sax, arranged and or produced on records and tours for everybody from James Brown to the Rolling Stones to Solomon Burke to Joan Jett to Darlene Love. He also co-founded The Uptown Horns, one of the industry’s most in demand horn sections for tours and recordings. He formed Cracked Ice out of his love for classic soul, yet with one notable exception the tunes on Soul Noir are his originals. They’re just written in the classic soul vernacular, which makes it a high value find for our mission here at Finding Classic CowjazzR&B. The one cover is the well chosen Candi Staton classic, “Sweet Feeling,” which she co-wrote with her then husband, the great Clarence Carter.
Cioe structured the group to feature co-lead singers, one male and one female, in the duet heritage of Otis and Carla, Marvin and Tammi, Inez and Charlie Foxx, and Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford. Here his vocalists are Brent Carter, formerly of Tower of Power, and Susan D who sang backup with Wilson Pickett and others. They trade leads as well as harmonize together on songs that traverse the breadth of the soul spectrum all the while backed by great horns and rhythm section from a standout lineup of soul and rock veterans.
Cioe may have grown up in Detroit and Chicago and bases himself professionally in New York, but on his web site he points out with pride that two of Soul Noir’s tracks “became bona fide hits on the local-but-mighty Carolina ‘beach music’ scene centered in Myrtle Beach/Charleston/Wilmington: ‘That’s My Story’ and ‘Sweet Feeling’ (with Susan singing lead) … and with ‘shag dancing’ fans world-wide.” I also love the high energy “Start It Up” in counterpoint with the belly rubbin’ slow shuffle of “Let’s Talk It Over” bracketing the Muscle Shoals – like groove of “Here To Stay.”
Old tunes done new. New tunes done old. I close my eyes. The sun come out to warm my face. I smell the salt spray at OD, or is that Atlantic Beach. I feel a cold can in my hand. And off in the distance I hear “you better get on up, and get that groove, you know what baby, I like the way you move…so don’t fight it, oh baby just feel it, feel it.”