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

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Little Steven Releases New Album Summer Of Sorcery

Van Zandt’s first studio record of new original material in 20 years features mighty backing band The Disciples of Soul

Steven Van Zandt is back in full force on Summer of Sorcery, and he’s pulling all the stops on what is his first album of new original music in 20 years. The launch activities include record release shows this evening in Los Angeles and next Wednesday in Asbury Park, N.J. Since yesterday afternoon, Van Zandt has also “taken over” SiriusXM’s Classic Vinyl (Ch. 26), where he presents vintage and classic rock tracks, as well as songs from the new album throughout the weekend. Moreover, Summer of Sorcery will be supported with an extended tour through Europe and North America.

Little Steven clearly has been reenergized as a solo artist since the May 2017 release of predecessor Soulfire and that record’s supporting tour, which was also captured on last April’s Soulfire Live! album. He cut down the time between solo record releases from almost 20 to two years – Born Again Savage, the album prior to Soulfire, came out in 1999. And why not? With Bruce Springsteen’s previous Broadway engagement and his upcoming solo album Western Stars, the timing has been perfect for the E Street Band guitarist to focus on his own music.

Little Steven Tour Banner

In many ways, Summer of Sorcery represents a continuation of Soulfire. On both albums, Little Steven is backed by the impressive 14-piece band The Disciples of Soul, and both releases represent a musical journey back to the ’60s and ’70s. If one music artist can pull this off, it is Van Zandt, who frequently showcases his encyclopedic knowledge of music history on his SiriusXM program Underground Garage. He also did so when I saw him and the Disciples in September 2017 during the Soulfire tour.

The key difference between the two records is that Summer of Sorcery features new original music, whereas Soulfire includes songs Van Zandt wrote or co-wrote throughout his career. Most of the tracks on Soulfire also did not appear under his name but were released by other artists, such as Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, the band Van Zandt co-founded with John Lyon (“Southside Johnny”) in the mid-70s and whose first three albums he produced, and Gary U.S. Bonds. You can read more about Soulfire here. Time to get to some new music!

Here’s the opener Communion, a brassy soul rocker and one of the 10 original tunes on the album.

Next up perhaps is a bit of a surprise, at least from my perspective: a Latin song called Party Mambo! I asked my wife who is from Puerto Rico about the tune. She expressed some doubts that fellow Hispanics will like it. While it may not 100 percent authentic, I think it’s groovy.

Vortex throws in blaxploitation, a genre that Little Steven clearly seems to like. Soulfire features a cool cover of Down And Out In New York City, which James Brown first recorded for the soundtrack album of the 1973 blaxploitation crime drama Black Cesar. Unlike that tune, Vortex is an original, which sounds like an homage to Isaac Hayes’ Shaft. When I’m listening to the tune, I can literally hear the backing vocalists in Shaft.

The title of the next track I’d like to call out pretty much says it all: Soul Power Twist. Another original, the soul horns-meet rock tune could have appeared on an album by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. It has a Sam Cooke vibe to it.

How about some blues? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s I Visit The Blues.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the title track and closer. “The whole theme of the album is summed up in that song, that wizardry, that magic mixture of falling in love in the summer,” Van Zandt stated in a press release. With clocking in at over eight minutes, it’s perhaps not your typical love song.

“With this record I really wanted to travel back to a time when life was exciting, when unlimited possibilities were there every day,” Van Zandt further pointed out. “That was the feeling in the ’60s, the thrill of the unexpected coming at you. Our minds were blown every single day, one amazing thing after another, constantly lifting you up. So you kind of walked around six inches off the ground all the time, there was something that kept you buoyant in your spirit. I wanted to try and capture that first and foremost.”

Van Zandt seems to be a smart man, so I assume his above statement refers to the world of music, or he simply got carried away by excitement over his new album. The real world in America during the ’60s certainly was much more complicated, with racial segregation, the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War, to name some the events that happened during that period.

Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul in concert
Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul in concert (2017)

Summer of Sorcery, which was produced by Van Zandt and appears on Wicked Cool/UMe, is available on CD, digitally, and on vinyl as double LP on 180-gram black vinyl. There is also a limited edition double LP on 180-gram psychedelic swirl vinyl one can get exclusively via uDiscover. The album was mixed and mastered by veteran Bob Clearmountain, who has worked in various capacities with Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Toto and many other top music artists.

In my opinion, Summer of Sorcery is a fun listening experience, even though it’s perhaps not quite as compelling as Soulfire. Like on that album, the production is a bit massive, but The Disciples of Soul are a hell of a band. Directionally speaking, I also agree with American Songwriter, which wrote the tracks “are often little more than revitalized riffs, melodies and rhythms of already existing songs retrofitted with new words and creative, even complex, rearrangements” – a little harsh, in my opinion. They added the album pulls out “all the stops to make this sonic smorgasbord explode out of the speakers with passion and clout.” I don’t think Van Zandt would claim the music represents anything new; in fact, I would argue it was his clear intention to pay homage to artists and music of the past, so the album’s retro sound isn’t surprising and doesn’t bother me.

As noted above, Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul are going on the road. Following the above two album release gigs in the U.S., a 19-date European tour kicks off on May 16 in Liverpool, UK. Some of the other gigs include Berlin, Germany (May 28); Stockholm, Sweden (June 1); Brussels, Belgium (June 7) and Zurich, Switzerland (June 11), before that leg wraps up on June 23 in Paris, France. This is followed by 13 North American gigs, starting on June 29 in Syracuse, N.Y. and finishing on July 28 in Annapolis, Md. Then it’s back again to Europe until the beginning of September, before the band returns to North America with four shows in Las Vegas from September 5-8. There are plenty of additional dates during that second North American leg, including Tuscon, Ariz. (Sep 15); Austin, Texas (Sep 29); Birmingham, Ala. (Oct 3); Chicago (Oct 23); and New York City (Nov 6), the last listed gig. The current tour schedule is included in the above press release.

Sources: Wikipedia, UMe press release, Little Steven website, American Songwriter, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Southern Avenue/Savior

Savior is the second single from the upcoming sophomore album Keep On by Memphis blues, soul and R&B band Southern Avenue. The record is set to come out on May 10 via Concord Records.

Co-written by guitarist Ori Naftaly and lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson, this is quite a seductive tune by one of the few contemporary bands I really dig. It comes two weeks after the release of the lead single Whiskey Love, which I covered here.

“There was a magic that happened between the guitar and her voice,” Naftaly told culture magazine PopMatters. It wasn’t written on a computer. It was me and her in a room. It was originally intended to be a keyboard song with the Rhodes. It took me a minute to let go of my vision for it as a keyboard song. I’m a guitar player but my agenda as a bandleader and producer is to bring everybody in. But the song really seemed to need a guitar. It has that epic feeling that we wanted it to have.”

Based on the first two singles, Keep On sounds like a very promising album. I will certainly keep it on my radar screen.

Sources: Southern Avenue Facebook group; PopMatters, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Southern Avenue/No Time To Lose

I’ve written about Southern Avenue before, for example here. Together with Greta Van Fleet, this five-piece funky blues, R&B and soul band from Memphis, Tenn. is one of the very few younger contemporary music acts I’m truly excited about. I had a chance to briefly chat with guitarist Ori Naftaly and lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson at a gig in New York last August, and apart from being talented artists, they are such nice and regular people – not necessarily a given in the music world, especially for a band that appears to be received enthusiastically wherever they perform. These guys are keeping it real!

Co-written by Jackson and Naftaly, No Time To Lose is included on Southern Southern’s eponymous debut album that appeared in February 2017 on Stax Records – yep, that Stax where the likes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave released their music. That in and of itself is pretty cool in my book. I also think this tune rocks: great guitar riff and superb singing. The sound of the keys played by Jeremy Powell is right up my alley as well. Tierinii’s sister Tikyra Jackson on drums completes the band’s core lineup. Bassist Gage Markey is a touring member.

Speaking of touring, Southern Avenue seems to be on the road most of the time. They’re playing in many parts of the U.S. and occasionally even oversees. You can check out their current schedule on their Facebook page here. They are also scheduled to release their sophomore album later this year.

Sources: Southern Avenue website and Facebook page, YouTube

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

 

What I’ve Been Listening To: The J. Geils Band/The J. Geils Band

Ultimate party band’s studio debut went largely unnoticed

At first sight it’s somewhat puzzling. When The J. Geils Band released their eponymous studio debut in November 1970, they already had established themselves as a dynamic live act opening shows all around the country for top-notch artists like B.B. King, Johnny Winter and The Allman Brothers Band. Yet this dynamite album went largely unnoticed, barely making the Billboard 200 at no. 195, and not charting at all in other countries.

I was reminded how great this record is when Apple Music served it up to me as a listening suggestion. I also think this observation from their bio of the band is spot on: While their muscular sound and the hyper jive of frontman Peter Wolf packed arenas across America, it only rarely earned them hit singles. Seth Justman, the group’s main songwriter, could turn out catchy R&B-based rockers like “Give It To Me” and “Must Of Got Lost,” but these hits never led to stardom, primarily because the group had trouble capturing the energy of its live sound in the studio.

J. Geils Band 1970
The J. Geils Band (promotional photo from 1970)

The J. Geils Band started out as an acoustic blues trio in the mid-’60s, calling themselves Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels (clearly a ’60s name!) and consisting of J. Geils (guitar), Danny Klein (bass) and Richard Salwitz, known as “Magic Dick” (harmonica). In 1968, the band adopted an electric sound, hired Stephen Bladd (drums) and Peter Wolf (vocals), and became The J. Geils Blues Band. They completed their line-up when Seth Justman (keyboards) joined later that year. By the time they signed with Atlantic Records in 1970, the band had dropped “Blues” from their name and become The J. Geils Band.

Time for some music. Here’s the great opener Wait. One of the album’s five original tunes, it was co-written by Justman and Wolf.

Next up: Icebreaker (For The Big “M”), an excellent instrumental composed by Geils. Check out the cool guitar and harmonica harmony playing. This tune is cooking, even without Wolf’s vocals!

Hard Drivin’ Man is another terrific original track. It was co-written by Wolf and Geils.

I’d like to conclude this post with two covers by The J. Geils Band I’ve always liked. The first is called Homework, a tune co-written by Otis Rush, Al Perkins and Dave Clark. I believe the song was first recorded and released as a single in 1965 by Perkins and soul singer Betty Bibbs.

Last but not least, here’s First I Look At The Purse. Initially recorded by Motown act The Contours in 1965, the tune was co-written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers. It’s perhaps the example on the album, which best illustrates the above observation from the Apple Music bio. While it’s a great take, it feels a bit timid compared to the live version that can be found on the excellent Live Full House album from September 1972.

The J. Geils Band would go and record 10 additional studio albums and three live records, and release various compilations. Only one of their ’70s studio records, Bloodshot, charted in the top 10 on the Billboard 200 at no. 10. Ironically, shortly after the band finally hit commercial success with Freeze-Frame from October 1981, fueled by the singles Centerfold and the title track, The J. Geils Band started to fall apart.

Peter Wolf left in 1983. The band released one more album in October 1984, You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd, and called it quits the following year. The J. Geils Band has since reunited for various tours. In 2012, J. Geils who after the 1985 breakup had gotten into auto racing and restoration, sewed the other band members, charging they had planned a tour without him. He quit permanently thereafter and sadly passed away in April 2017 at the age of 71.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apple Music, YouTube