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.
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 Franklin, B.B. King, Solomon 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 Music, William 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!
“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