Sharon Jones is back

If you ever want to know the difference between a concert and a soul revue, go check out Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings next time you get the chance. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, when black performers were just beginning to cross over to white audiences, record labels like Motown and Stax would send out dozens of their artists to tour together. This way, white teenagers across America would be able to watch their favorite performers all at one show. (Additionally, the artists could maintain a degree of safety in numbers, not a throw-away consideration during the years of Jim Crow.) In order to present a concert of Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, the Temptations and Little Stevie Wonder in a single night, the program had to be set. The artists knew their set lists and the order of the line-up. They had their dance moves and introductions down. The backing band was ready not only to play the biggest hits of the year, but to seamlessly shift between the headlining acts. This was a soul revue, where every song had a segue and every act was rehearsed beyond measure. For most musicians of the post-’60s era, those days are long gone. Yet Jones seems intent on bringing them back.

Jones’s performance on Feb. 14 at The Orange Peel was grounded in the past traditions of soul, rock, r&b and funk music, even as it pointed steadily forward. For Jones, forward is the only way to go. After being diagnosed with cancer only nine months ago—and having been told by doctors that her body was rid of the disease only two weeks before starting a new national tour—Jones took to the stage as though her life depended on it. She celebrated her bald head, joking about her hair growing back a little bit grayer. During an intense gospel breakdown by the Dap Kings, Jones testified about her struggle with cancer and the power she had found to rebound. Jones and her band left the audience with a remarkable sensation of uplift and joy, of overcoming and triumph.

It may have been the music. The Dap Kings began the night with a ’60s throwback: the quick-talking MC who sets the stage even as the eight-piece band behind him cooks along at a low volume. Opening the set with a hot instrumental, guitarist Binky Griptite hyped the show, thanked the terrific opening act (Valerie June), and presented the Dapettes, Jones’s background singers. Noting that one of the singers was sick, Griptite handed the reins to Star Duncan, who took charge with a voice strong enough to initiate her own Soul Revue. From that point forward, the musical energy of the evening never dropped. 

It may have been this revue-style concert. Dap King bassist and bandleader, Bosco Mann (aka Gabriel Roth) ran the show from start to finish. Often playing with his back to the audience, Mann conducted the drums and horn sections, both following and anticipating Jones’ improvisations. Tunes seemed to be able to extend spontaneously, depending on Jones’ raps with the crowd, always ending tightly, often with drop-of-the-hat hits in the style of James Brown. Most amazingly, the concert never lulled, never slowed down, never lost energy, even between songs and, perhaps most remarkably, even during ballads.

It must have been Sharon Jones. Yes, her band is top-notch, the funky soul is lively, and the famous Dap King arrangements announce a tremendous return to the days of skinny ties and tasseled dresses. But none of this would matter if the headline artist couldn’t bring the goods. Jones nearly ran out onto the stage, proudly healthy and defiantly beautiful. Her smile was infectious, her voice combative, fiery, and transcendent.

Jones sang songs from most of her recording catalog from the last decade or so, including some of the best tunes from her month-old release, Give the People What They Want. “Retreat!” sounded an anthem, “Stranger to My Happiness” registered as a blues call put to a dance beat. Happily for this reviewer, Jones played “People Don’t Get What They Deserve,” adding her powerful critique of labor and income inequality to the pounding groove. She also sang a wonderfully arranged “Heard it Through the Grapevine” and encored with a beautiful (and funky) rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” As Jones took us all back to 1965 with her versions of the boogaloo, the jerk, the mashed potatoes and the swim, she made sure everyone at The Orange Peel was dancing along.

Photo by Joseph DiLiberto, via Instagram.


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