Southern Avenue Keep On Delivering Distinct Blend of Powerful Soul, Blues And R&B On New Album

Southern Avenue perhaps couldn’t have chosen a better title for their sophomore album. Released yesterday, Keep On continues to effectively draw from different musical backgrounds of the band’s members. Southern Avenue skillfully blend Stax-style soul with blues, R&B, gospel, funk and rock. The result is powerful music combining familiar with new influences and a sound that has noticeably matured and become more distinct since the band’s eponymous debut from February 2017.

The five-piece band from Memphis, Tenn. has been on my radar screen since I listened to the first album about two years ago. I also witnessed what a great live act Southern Avenue are when I saw them in New York City last August. At the time, I briefly chatted with guitarist Ori Naftaly, who mentioned their new album. My anticipation grew further with the release of the lead single Whiskey Love in early April, followed by the appearance of the second single Savior.

For brief background, Southern Avenue were founded in 2015 when Israeli blues guitarist Ori Naftaly met Memphis vocalist Tierini Jackson and her sister Tikyra Jackson, drummer and backing vocalist. Jeremy Powell on keyboards rounds out the band’s core line-up. Bassist Gage Markey has been a touring member for the past couple of years and also plays on the new record. Southern Avenue took their name from a street that runs from East Memphis to “Soulsville,” the original home of Stax Records. While that’s a clear nod to the band’s admiration for the legendary soul label, they are not a Stax revival act.

Southern Avenue_Keep On Press Photo
Southern Avenue (from left): Tierini Jackson, Jeremy Powell, Gage Markey, Tikyra Jackson and Ori Naftaly

Keep On features some impressive guests. In this context, I first would like to mention the great horn section comprised of saxophonist Art Edmaiston and trumpet player Mark Franklin. They are an important factor for the above noted more mature sound. Edmaiston has played with artists like Levon Helm and Gregg Allman, while Franklin  has supported sessions for the likes of Aretha FranklinB.B. KingSolomon Burke and Booker T. & the M.G.s. Another prominent guest is William Bell, who is perhaps best known for co-writing Born Under a Bad Sign with Booker T. Jones. The tune was first recorded by Albert King in 1967 and popularized by Cream the following year.

Alright, I think it’s time for some music. Here’s the album’s opener and title track. Co-written by Ori Naftaly, Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black, the tune is a nice example of how Southern Avenue blend different genres. Naftaly clearly is a blues guitarist at heart and I can hear some Cream in his cool riff. The horns add a dose of soul while Jackson’s strong vocals throw in some R&B.

Since I previously wrote about the first two singles Whiskey Love and Savior, I’m skipping these great tracks here and jump to the nice funky Switchup. Like the title track, the song is co-credited to Naftaly, Jackson and Black.

Next up: Lucky. Co-written by Naftaly and Jackson, this song has a beautiful retro Stax vibe to it. But, as if to emphasize that Southern Avenue don’t want to be a retro Memphis soul band, Naftaly throws in a fairly rock-oriented guitar solo.

Another great number is Jive, a co-write by Naftaly, Black and both Jackson sisters. I dig the tune’s driving beat, which makes you want to get up and dance. The horns and the backing vocals set great accents.

On the upbeat We’ve Got The MusicWilliam Bell joins Tierini Jackson on vocals. Bell also shares writing credits with Naftaly and her. I like the song’s message about the power of music and how it can bridge differences among people: If you don’t look like me/If you don’t talk like me, that’s alright/We’ve got the music/If you don’t know my face/But you’re feeling the sound, it’s okay/We’ve got the music…

The last track I’d like to call out is the album’s closer We’re Gonna Make It. I think music publication No Depression nicely described the tune in their review of Keep On. “This gospel-inflected song opens with a nod to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and builds a message of love, persistence, and encouragement layer-by-layer. The song takes up where the Staple Singers left off, carrying the torch of hope in a world of darkness and giving us a new anthem for these times.”

“Making this album was an interesting journey,” Ori explained. “Our first album was recorded very fast and released very fast. With this one, we spent a long time planning, and we knew how we wanted it sound. For me, it’s a big progression from the first album.” Added Tierini: “The experience was completely different from making the first one. We learned a lot about each other and a lot about the band.”

One of the cool things about Keep On is that the album was recorded at Sam Phillips Recording. The studio was opened in Memphis in 1960 by no one other than legendary Sun Records founder and producer Sam Phillips, who worked with artists like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and B.B. King. Wow, one can only imagine what it must have felt like for this young band to record in that studio – the thought of it gives me goosebumps!

Southern Avenue In Concert

“The thing that stood out most to me about Southern Avenue is their dedication to making this record ‘the hard way’,” stated producer Johnny Black. “Even in their selection of studios; by picking Sam Phillips Recording, the band, in essence, forced themselves to record within the same parameters as some of their heroes. And while that process may have taken extra time, it was well worth the effort.” In my humble opinion, I think Black is spot on.

Southern Avenue currently is where they seem to be most of the time – on the road. Their tour schedule is packed between now and mid-November and mostly includes U.S. dates. From late May to mid-June, the band is also playing a series of shows in Europe. I have no doubt Southern Avenue will keep on wowing audiences with their performances that are passionate, authentic and humble at the same time. As a communications professional, I also have to commend the band for their effective use of Facebook to build their fan base. I’m planning to catch them again on July 11 during Jams on the Sand, a free outdoor event in Asbury Park, N.J.

Sources: Wikipedia, Southern Avenue website, William Bell website, No Depression, YouTube

Advertisements

What I’ve Been Listening To: Booker T. Jones/Sound The Alarm

I dig the distinct sound of the Hammond B3 – just can’t get of enough it! Whether it’s used in blues, jazz, rock or even hard rock a la Deep Purple, to me it’s one of the greatest sounding music instruments I know. If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, this won’t be exactly a new revelation. If you happen to be here for the first time and would like to read more about the B3, I invite you to check out this previous post from June 2017.

Undoubtedly, one of the music artists most closely associated with the legendary tone wheel organ is Booker T. Jones. I feel magic is happening when the man works those keys and drawbars. As I’m writing this, I can literally hear Greens Onions.  Jones wrote the tune’s distinct organ line when he was just 17. His band mates from the M.G.s helped put it all together, and it became their signature tune. Booker T. & the M.G.s, of course, were primarily known as the house band of Memphis soul label Stax. While I know and dig the music Jones helped create in the ’60s, until recently, I had not explored any of his work post Stax and the M.G.’s.

Booker T. & the M.G.s
Booker T. & The M.G.’s (from left): Al Jackson Jr., Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn

Booker T.’s solo debut Evergreen appeared in 1974, four years after he had severed ties with Stax and moved to Los Angeles. Sound The Alarm from June 2013 is his most recent solo work. It also marked Jones’ return to Stax since Melting Pot, the M.G.’s final album with the label in January 1971.

Sound The Alarm was co-produced by Jones and brothers Bobby Ross Avila and Issiah “IZ” Avila, who have worked with the likes of Usher, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliot. The album also features various collaborations with younger R&B artists. The result is an intriguing blend of Booker T.’s Hammond B3 and contemporary sounds.

Booker T. Jones

Here’s the groovy opener and title track. It’s one of eight tunes co-written by The Avila Brothers. The song features American multi-talented artist Andrew Mayer Cohen, known as Mayer Hawthorne, on vocals. To be clear, I had never heard of the 40-year-old from Los Angeles before, who in addition to being a singer is a producer, songwriter, arranger, audio engineer, DJ and multi-instrumentalist, according to Wikipedia.

Broken Heart features another contemporary artist, Jay James, who has a great soulful voice that blends beautifully with Jones’ warm Hammond sound. The tune was co-written by Jones, The Avila Brothers and Terry Lewis. Together with his song-writing and production partner James Samuel (Jimmy Jam), Lewis also co-produced the track

Next up: Austin City Blues. Of course I couldn’t skip a good ole blues! Penned by Jones, the instrumental features Gary Clark, Jr. on guitar. The Hammond and Clark’s electric guitar live in perfect harmony, to creatively borrow from a Paul McCartney ballad he recorded with Stevie Wonder in the early ’80s. “Gary and I have a real thing going on mentally, kind of like what I had with Steve Cropper in the MGs, really understanding each other,” Jones noted on his website.  “He really is in my corner.”

66 Impala is a cool, largely instrumental Latin jazz tune with an infectious Santana vibe, even though there’s no guitar. But you can easily imagine Carlos playing electric guitar lines in his signature style and tone on the track, which is another co-write by Jones and The Avila Brothers. Instead of Santana, it features two other big names: Poncho Sanchez and Sheila E on percussion and drums, respectively.

The last track I’d like to call out is the album’s closer Father Son Blues. The title of this Jones-written tune couldn’t be more appropriate. On guitar, the instrumental duo features Booker T.’s son Ted, who was 22 years old at the time of the recording. Apparently, Booker T. coincidentally had heard his son play at their house one day and at first mistakenly had assumed it was Joe Bonamassa. “I thought, ‘This is amazing,'” Jones noted. “‘you can have something right in front of your own nose and you don’t see it!’”

Commenting on the collaboration with The Avila Brothers, Jones said, “Bobby and I had previously done a little impromptu gig with El Debarge – that was the turning point when I decided to work with him. They have a different perspective about the musical palette. Their attitude is quite unique and quite innovative. That’s something I’ve looked for since I was maybe 13 or 14 years old and had figured out a little bit about music. It can be very predictable or it can be exploratory. I’m always looking for something new to do.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Booker T. Jones website, YouTube

 

Clips & Pix: Booker T. Jones Demonstrates Hammond B3

When one of the coolest Hammond B3 players on the planet demonstrates the legendary organ and chats about how he got into playing this beautiful instrument, you know you’re in for a treat! To me the above NPR footage of Booker T. Jones hands-down is one of the most mesmerizing music clips I’ve ever watched on YouTube. Observing the man explain how you “crawl” on the Hammond and seeing the joy he still gets out of playing the organ is just priceless. His voice isn’t shabby either! If you’re into soulful music craftsmanship and haven’t seen this yet, I would strongly encourage you to invest the 18 minutes it takes to watch this clip in its entirety.

In fact, if you’ve visited the blog in the past, you may have seen a previous feature I did on the Hammond B3 back in June 2017. That piece included the above clip as well, but it was kind of buried all the way at the end. I was reminded of this great footage last night when I talked to a keyboarder of a jam band. I told him Green Onions would be a cool addition to their set list and in this context mentioned Jones’ great demo and that he had to watch it. Did I mention I can have strong opinions about music? In any case, I felt featuring this clip again and this time doing it more prominently was warranted.

Apart from Jones sharing nice anecdotes from the past, including how his piano teacher changed his life, he plays three tunes: Green Onions, Born Under A Bad Sign and Down In MemphisGreen Onions became a signature tune for Booker T. & The M.G.s in 1962 and launched their career as a standalone act. Of course, they were primarily known as the house band of Stax Records where they backed such amazing artists like Wilson Pickett, Otis ReddingCarla Thomas and Albert King on hundreds of recordings.

Born Under A Bad Sign was co-written by Jones and Stax longtime recording artist William Bell for Albert King, who recorded it in 1967. The tune became the title track of King’s second studio album that appeared in August of the same year. Jones closes out his presentation with Down In Memphis, a new song at the time this footage was recorded. The track was included on Jones’ ninth studio album The Road From Memphis released in May 2011. I don’t recall having ever listened to that record, so I should go and check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Great Covers Tom Petty Style

American Girl, Refugee, You Got Lucky, Runnin’ Down A Dream, BreakdownFree Fallin’, Southern AccentsMary Jane’s Last Dance, The Last DJ – there are countless great songs written by Tom Petty. In addition to that, Petty has also performed many fantastic covers, especially during his concerts. With The Heartbreakers, he had one hell of a backing band. I was reminded of that earlier today, when I came across and listened to an EP titled Bad Girl Boogie, which apparently was exclusively released on Amazon.com in June 2010 as a bonus CD to the DVD Live At The Olympic: The Last DJ. This triggered the idea of putting together a post focused on covers played by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

I’d like to start things off with what I believe was the first cover I ever heard from Tom Petty: Needles And Pins, a song I’ve always dug. It was included on Pack Up The Plantation: Live!, the first official live album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,  which appeared in November 1985. Written by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono, the tune was first released by Jackie DeShannon in April 1963. In January 1964, The Searchers turned it into a no. 1 hit single in the U.K. In the U.S., it performed strongly as well, peaking at no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Petty’s great rendition features Stevie Nicks on backing vocals.

Next up: Green Onions, simply one of the coolest instrumentals I know. It appears on The Live Anothology, a live box set and true treasure trove released in November 2009. The tune was initially written by Booker T. Jones and recorded by Booker T. & The M.G.’s in 1962 in a largely improvised fashion while waiting to back another artist in the studio. It became the title track of the Stax house band’s debut album from October 1962 and their signature tune. According to the liner notes, the Heartbreakers’ killer take was recorded during a February 6, 1997 gig at The Fillmore in San Francisco.

Here’s I’m Crying from the above mentioned bonus CD to the Live At The Olympic DVD. The concert was recorded on October 16, 2002 at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Written by Eric Burden and Alan Price, this great tune by The Animals first appeared as the B-side to the Australian version of their 1964 single Boom Boom, a cover of the John Lee Hooker tune. I’m Crying was also included on their second U.S. studio album The Animals On Tour.

Another intriguing cover appearing on The Live Anthology is Goldfinger – yep, that would be the title track of the classic 1964 James Bond motion picture! Composed by John Barry, with lyrics co-written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, it’s one of the greatest movie songs I know. Presumably because it would have been hard to capture the amazing vocal by Shirley Bassey, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the track as a cool Shadows-style instrumental. Mike Campbell is doing an outstanding job that I assume made Hank Marvin proud, if he heard it. Like Green Onions, Goldfinger was captured at The Fillmore in San Francisco, except it was a different date: January 31, 1997.

The last cover I’d like to highlight in this post also appears on the above Bad Girl Boogie EP/bonus CD: The Chuck Berry classic Carol, first released as a single in August 1958. It also appeared on Berry’s first compilation album Chuck Berry Is On Top from July 1959. This take features more awesome guitar work by Campbell and some kickass honky piano by Benmont Tench – great gosh a’ mighty, to borrow from another talented gentleman and piano player called Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube