Houston soul ensemble returns to Asheville

NO SHOWBOATING: Winner of 11 Houston Press Music Awards in 2015, The Suffers make heartfelt, traditional-minded soul music for modern audiences. After sets at The Grey Eagle and Downtown After 5, the group returns to Asheville for a concert at Diana Wortham Theatre. Photo by Greg Noire

It’s not unheard of for a band to change its style as it grows and develops. But Houston-based band The Suffers make soul music that’s far more compelling than — and completely different from — the group’s original vision. Fresh from the ordeal of Hurricane Harvey, The Suffers perform at The Diana Wortham Theatre on Friday, Sept. 22.

Even a quick spin of “Make Some Room,” the opening track on The Suffers’ self-titled 2016 debut, reveals a tune deeply immersed in a 1970s-era soul vibe. But when bassist Adam Castaneda and keyboardist Pat Kelly first put the band together in 2011, soul music wasn’t part of their plans. Instead, explains lead singer Kam Franklin, the band’s goal was to play “reggae, ska, rock-steady covers of traditional pop music.”

In those early days, The Suffers played only a few originals alongside the covers. “But we started realizing that there were more originals within us,” Franklin says. “And the desire to play more original music was there. So instead of forcing that off, we just kind of went with it.”

The band made the transition smoothly, but some of the group’s earliest fans in Houston had trouble accepting the new direction. “A lot of people had gotten used to us playing full-on cover sets,” Franklin says. “And we didn’t want to get to a place where that was what we were known for.”

She admits that it was hard, at first, to win over those fans, but The Suffers did the work to “make the sets fun without feeling like we were cheating that audience,” Franklin says. “And once we started working more on evolving that original sound, things got much easier.”

With eight people onstage — guitar, bass, drums, keys, a three-person horn section and Franklin out front on vocals — it could be a challenge to keep The Suffers’ arrangements from being noisy and overly busy. But they’re a tight ensemble. “We try not to get on top of each other,” Franklin says with a laugh. “But at the same time, it’s just become a part of our natural flow.”

She explains that, from the band’s very beginning, there was a collective decision “not to showboat. Everybody here is capable of creating amazing sounds,” she says, “but the point of The Suffers is to try and create a space, musically, for all of us to shine.”

The group’s eponymous album is sequenced very much like a live performance, and that’s no accident. “We wanted it to feel like an experience where the listener goes through all the emotions in that order,” Franklin says. And in an age of ProTools and potentially unlimited overdubbing, The Suffers was recorded live in the studio.

The product of that live approach is less a document of The Suffers’ current stage show than what Franklin calls an introduction. “When we wrote and recorded the album, we weren’t touring,” she says. In the subsequent months on the road, the band’s sound improved further. Franklin says that when fans hear the group live, they often say things like, “Wow. Y’all sound even better than you do on the album!”

As far as the hurricane that struck Houston last month, Franklin says that those in and around the group remained safe and accounted for. “Everyone’s been volunteering and — as much as we can — trying to provide emotional support to those who have lost everything,” she says, characterizing the response to Harvey as one big, citywide effort.

“Everybody’s hurting,” she concedes. “But at the same time, everybody’s very strong and knows that we’re all gonna come out of this OK.”

And the band members’ experiences with Harvey are likely to influence the character of The Suffers’ next album, already in progress. The new songs “focus on everything from spiritual relationships to the relationships that we have with our parents, with our friends, and the way that we choose to treat others and ourselves,” Franklin says. “So, after this hurricane, I’m sure it’s gonna be even more emotional stuff. I have a lot of things on my mind that I haven’t even had a chance to write about.”

WHAT: An Evening with The Suffers
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave., dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Friday, Sept. 22, 8 p.m. $35 general admission/$30 students/$20 children/$10 student rush

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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