SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS
Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival 2012 [DAY 2]
Parking in downtown Seattle can be pretty fucked. Parking during labor day weekend is even more of a pain in the ass. Parking near Seattle Center over labor day weekend while the Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival is going on is the worst. I was able to land a ride the first day and it made things a lot easier, so I took the same approach for the following one. The problem is that, when you’re at the mercy of someone else’s generosity, you’re also at the mercy of which speed they choose to dispense that generosity and I was already late. The day was kicking off with one of the most important acts for me to catch all weekend, in Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and once I entered the festival premises, I still needed to head over to the press check-in area, before I could head over to the Key Arena where they’d be performing. None of the vehicles in front of us seemed to be in any hurry; they were creeping incredibly slow. I was overreacting. Most of the acts had a 3 song photo limit and I didn’t want to miss my opportunity, but it looked like I was gonna make it fine. Everything was cool. I needed to relax. That’s when I realized that I had forgotten my ticket and was going to have to turn around and head all the way back home to get it.
Once I got my pass, I immediately rushed over to the side/press entrance at the arena to try and catch as much of the show as I still could. My bag was searched and, as I stepped through the doors, a staff member tried to give me some information about a “meet and greet” with the artists and press, which was to take place over by some tree, 15 minutes prior to each of the main stage performances. “Great, great… out of my way lady, I’m late!“ I scurried down a staircase down to the concrete level below, toward the entrance that I was informed would lead me down to the main floor. In past years, the main stage for the festival was held in the Memorial Stadium, with bleacher seating and the actual stage located at one end of a football field. The Key Arena is where the Sonics used to play, before they were taken. The arena has been regularly used for Bumbershoot shows in the past, but, apparently, it wasn’t until the year before last that it took on the status as the venue for the main acts, eliminating Memorial Stadium from festival usage altogether. The Key has also been utilized as a concert venue for larger events (Prince, Radiohead, Madonna), both since and prior to the city losing its basketball franchise, but it was definitely designed to operate as a sports arena, first and foremost. And, in typical sports arena fashion, there are circular levels peppered with concession stands, between the various, numbered walkways to seating divided by stairways/aisles, which lead down to the main floor. I was sent to section 104. Flashing my pass, I stepped through the mini hallway and looked down at the mainfloor, where rows of folding chairs had been assembled facing a stage. There was hardly anyone in them. I looked around to the seats around me; it was the same situation. It turns out that this show didn’t even start until 1:45. After all of that, I was way too fucking early.
The “meet and greet” situation out front was actually just a Bumbershoot staff member checking off names of photogs and then escorting the group down to shoot in the pit. Being a writer instead of just a photographer on assignment from a larger publication, it’s not uncommon to get shut out of the mainstage photo pit at festivals such as this. While every other photo pit is completely open for us to shoot; due to limitations in space, fire code, etc.; the main stage pits are often designated to a set number of photographers who gain that approval. Depending on how you view it and depending on the setup, this can be an inconvenience or it can actually work in your favor. Like most shows, there would be a “first 3 songs, no flash” photo policy, but there were no song limit restrictions from the audience. This means that, if you can catch a solid vantage point from the crowd, you would be able to maintain it throughout the show. It’s true that the photo pit generally provides for the best angles, but you’re climbing around dodging the other photographers and, once your 3 songs are up and you’re escorted out, it’s generally not the easiest move to get back up towards the front through a crowd. This time the crowd was seated. I was going to need to find a folding chair up front.
There were substantially more people in the crowd by the time that I came back in, but I actually managed to locate a spot way up in the second row and posted up next to a borderline elderly couple. As I snapped my 70-200mm lens onto my camera body in preparation, the husband of the couple said something to the effect of, “You can climb into that and live in there.“ I didn’t know what to say. “Yep.” Seated in the row directly in front of me was a woman with, who I could only guess was, her younger brother. He looked to be in his twenties and his mannerisms suggested that he had some level of mental disability–what some still might refer to as being “slow.” I looked around a bit more, but I really wasn’t sure what kind of crowd to expect at a Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings preformance anyway. Many folks will just show up to anything that’s playing on the main stage at a festival, but the indoor enclosure didn’t seem like it would be much of a benefit to such a beautifully sunny day at 1:45 in the afternoon. My guess was that the folks next to me had probably shown up early to catch the Tony Bennett performance that was scheduled to take place on the stage next.
When Sharon Jones took the stage, it was already filled with a backing band that was 10 members deep. The Dap-Kings, are essentially the house band of NY-based soul revival label Daptone Records. They have gone through a handful of personnel changes over the years, sharing and/or losing members to other Daptone groups like Antibalas, The Budos Band, and The Menahan Street Band. Tonight’s lineup still included bandleader and Daptones records co-founder, songwriter/producer/engineer Gabriel “Bosco Mann” Roth, on the bass, while accompanied by 2 backing vocalists (the Dapettes), a pair of guitarists (including Binky Griptite), a percussionist, a drummer, and a 3-man horn section. They were all dressed incredibly sharp, with an elegant draped velvet stage curtain as their backdrop. Jones herself was donning a shimmering black Missoni patterned mini dress with a section of feathers hanging diagonally across the lower front like black fringe. It was definitely the type of outfit that Tina Turner would have sported in her prime.
Jones commanded the crowd from the very moment that she first appeared, effortlessly strutting about in her heels. Beyond her dress, her powerful vocals and the way that she worked the stage helped to reinforce any similarities between her and Miss Anna Mae “You wrote the motherfucking song and now you can’t remember the got damn words” Bullock even further. That’s not to claim that her style is an imitation of Turner, because nothing could be further from the truth–if there’s one thing that Sharon Jones exudes besides soul, it’s authenticity–but there is not another female performer that embodies that fierce, mesmerizing, physical stage presence more equally or potently than Aunty Entity. Meanwhile, her deep howls and chocolatey smooth vocals put Jones on par with other greats like Aretha.
I think that it’s important to emphasize that nothing about Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings feels like an imitation. The term “revivalists” gets thrown around quite a bit in reference to the group and to the Daptone label in general, and, while it may be the most technically accurate descriptor available, I still feel as if that term can come across as somewhat misleading. It’s true that Daptone expresses a strong focus on “reviving” the funk/soul sounds of the 1960s and 70s, and it’s also true that the label’s official website even describes it in the following manner: “Musician-owned and run, our Brooklyn-based family of soul-drenched talent channels the spirits of bygone powerhouses like Stax and Motown into gilded moments of movement and joy…“ The production of Daptone albums also rely on more analog techniques to obtain their vintage quality and early 45s from the label were even said to be pressed without dates on them, leaving folks uncertain of what period in time they were originally recorded. With so much “reviving” taking place elsewhere, often with so much contrivance and by people that never even experienced the era the first time around–this 80s synth-pop with matching throwback acid-wash/neon fashion movement is one trifling example–just the idea of any exhumed time period can be off-putting.
There are a few things to remember, however. The first is that Soul isn’t a musical movement that ever really lost it’s respectability; it’s dated only by it’s failure to maintain mainstream popularity. It is not a genre that has been viewed as a temporary cultural misstep, or musical novelty, fertilized by marketing and a shallow pop-culture; such as disco, happy suburban Kriss Kross and Vanilla Ice rap, or the Electric Slide. When Medeski, Martin, and Wood became pseudo-ambassadors of jazz for a younger generation of listeners in the 90s, it wasn’t as if they were pulling from a completely dead genre, because jazz never really went anywhere, it just went smooth for a minute. What seems much more forced and inauthentic is so much of the music of our current times, which is being created by those that are emulating what has already proven itself to be popular and marketable, simply for those very reasons. It’s not unlike how the band BUSH, all the way out in the London, instantly and magically formed as a group with alternative, grunge-esque qualities just to rake in the loot with poorly crafted radio friendly tunes. These aren’t issues for the Dap-Kings, as everything that they touch really does feel timeless, as if it could have originally come from one of those old labels 40 or 50 years ago. What may be even more important to realize is that, while some of the musicians may be slightly younger, Sharon Jones is 56 years old and has been performing this type of music for the majority of her life. Similarly, breakout star and labelmate, Charles Bradley (read our review of his performance at this year’s Sasquatch Festival HERE) has been struggling to get a soul singing career off the ground since he was 14, but only just now found success in his 60s. Lee Fields (also on the label and performing at Bumbershoot this year) was already a deep funk legend–Sharon actually began her role as a frontwoman after performing backup on one of his tracks. There’s been a bit of a revival of the soul/funk sound with albums like Amy Winehouse‘s Back to Black, on which the Dap-Kings actually provided the instrumentation, but these aren’t sounds that have been pulled out of thin air or out of the past by people who have no history with them. The reason that the music sounds so solid and legitimate, is because it’s being created by people who never forgot about it or let it go. Just because legends like Otis, Marvin, and Sam Cooke are no longer on this Earth, it doesn’t mean that people have stopped possessing the voices, musical inclinations, or the soul to create and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are at the forefront of the soul/funk revivalist movement, because no one has been better at demonstrating that fact or at providing this music to those who have missed quality representations of it for so long.
It’s truly awe inspiring to see a band that’s so well rehearsed that everything that they do becomes natural again. The Dap-Kings were so tight and fluid that it was easy to forget how good they actual were. The real spotlight was on Sharon, where it was supposed to be. Her presence was so strong and her attitude so confident that the audience had no choice but to keep their focus locked tight on her every move/word. In fact, if I could only use 3 words to describe her, “strength” would have to be one of them. It felt as if she would enter the audience at any moment and her wide, almost maniacal, eyes were both confident and empowering. Her voice is amazing, but it isn’t the delicate sort that floats above the crowd or dissipates into the ether; it’s powerful and grabs the listener firmly, pulling them up out of their seats by the spine. It comes from somewhere deep. Everyone around me was on their feet and, whether they came to the show as fans or otherwise, they were definitely becoming them now. The audience was experiencing authenticity and there was something universal and unifying about it.
One of the greatest moments for me came from the young man seated directly in front of me with his sister. He may have been “differently-abled,” but this kid was losing his goddam mind throughout the whole show and getting down like a damn fool, exactly the way that he should have been. He was so into it that it and his unbridled passion was both awesome and infectious. After each and every song, he would make these broad, slow, very deliberate claps with his hands as if he were trying to crush clusters of gnats. At one point, he turned around and, facing towards the older man standing next to me, he casually reached out with a straight arm and closed fist. The arm was extended in front of me with his sister standing diagonally on the other side and both of us watched intently as her brother relentlessly attempted to get the bewildered older gentlemen to bump knuckles with him. First, the man raised his hand slightly, almost waving in response. Then, he looked around a few times, assuming that this kid was pointing at something behind him(with a closed hand, no less). There were some half-mumbles under his breath, but everything in his face read, “Hey, I… I’m not exactly sure what you want. Should I… or, is it this? Did you want this? Or… really, I have no idea what’s going on here.” Eventually, he put it together enough to tentatively raise a fist back and mirror the action directed towards him. The kid slowly pushed his hand forward, connecting knuckles with the old man’s awkwardly suspended arm and finished off the greeting by opening his fist with an explosion sound. The interaction was both comical and endearing, truly demonstrating the range of the crowd in attendance that day. Of course, the old guy still looked baffled, even after the fact.
The Dap-Kings tore through one soul jam after another, from the title track off of their 4th studio album, I Learned the Hard Way, to a cover of the Gladys Knight version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Her deep powerful vocals displayed plenty of range, cutting through upbeat funk-tinged gems to more emotional cuts, like “She Ain’t a Child No More,” which tells a tale of a young girl growing up through and surviving physical abuse at the hand of her mother. Toward the end of the set, Jones really picked up the momentum, utilizing the almost spastic, grooves of “When I Come Home” to transition into an all out dance medley/breakdown. Entering into the track with some banter about what it’s like being on the road, the Dap-Kings locked into a groove with trumpeter, David Guy and his two fellow members of the horn section stepping side to side and accenting the track with brassy jolts in unison. Maintaining a steady gallop over the beat, Sharon informed the crowd that we all needed to go back in time with her to the year 1965 and the vessel that we would be boarding to make that trip would be a “soul train” time machine. From there, she let the audience know that she was going to share with us some dance crazes of the era. Beginning with the Bugaloo, she’d set us up to know what was coming and then perform the move over a quick musical breakdown, until the band stabilized the groove again, sending her back into her on-deck strut. Next came the Pony, the Funky Chicken, the Jerk, the Mash Potato, the Wobble, the Peppermint Twist and, finally, the Swim. We all reboarded the fictional train until we returned to present-day Seattle, where the music merged back into the track and Jones finished it off in style.
Before leaving the stage, Sharon brought attention to the fact that Tony Bennett would be the next performer to take their place on it that day. She mentioned that she once had the opportunity to open for him in the past and, while she knew that he was not likely even in the building yet, she wanted to let “Mister Bennett” know that she’s seen how he continues to do all of these duets with every one else and that she’d finally like the opportunity for a duet with him of her own. The song that she wants to accompany the crooner on is “Moonriver” and she sang a few bars of it solo, before segueing into the closer of “100 Days” off of her album of the same name.
It was a bit disorienting stepping out into the daylight after the show was over. Granted, I was fairly close to the stage, but, riding on the undeniably solid foundation provided by the Dap-Kings, Sharon Jones‘ persona–complete with intense penetrating eyes and the ferocity of her movements–managed to absolutely tower over the 16,600 plus capacity arena. I may not have traveled all the way back to 1965, but I definitely experienced a time shift–it was hard to believe that it was still a sunny, early afternoon outside–and the show that I experienced took place in a sultry and intimate, yet lively, nightclub environment, rather than a sterile corporate-sponsored event center in the middle of a huge Summer festival. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings not only transcend eras, they transcend everything within their immediate environment. I wouldn’t catch a better performance all weekend.