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

Southern Avenue Release Whiskey Love, Single From Upcoming Second Album

I rarely get excited when it comes to contemporary music – most of what I know to me sounds generic, artificial and without any true soul. A caveat here is that I’m primarily referring to the mainstream. One of the few exceptions of contemporary music I dig is Southern Avenue, a band from Memphis, Tenn. that blends southern soul, blues and R&B. More regular visitors of the blog may recall that I’ve covered them on previous occasions, for example here. Today, Southern Avenue released Whiskey Love, the first single from their upcoming sophomore album Keep On set to drop May 10.

According to the band’s website, Whiskey Love is one of the original tracks on the record. The tune has a cool bluesy groove, fueled by rhythm section Tikyra Jackson (drums) and guest bassist Gage Markey, along with nice guitar work from Ori Naftaly. Keyboarder Jeremy Powell and a horn section set great accents. Tierinii Jackson once again is delivering a powerful and soulful performance on lead vocals. This is going to be a great song live!

The horn section features saxophonist Art Edmaiston, who has played with artists like Levon Helm and Gregg Allman, and trumpet player Mark Franklin. In addition to Allman, Franklin has been in sessions with the likes of Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Solomon Burke and Booker T. & the M.G.s. – holy mackerel!

“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 Tierinii: “The experience was completely different from making the first one. We learned a lot about each other and a lot about the band.”

“The thing that stood out most to me about Southern Avenue is their dedication to making this record ‘the hard way’,” noted 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.”

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

“What makes it Southern Avenue is that when we come together, the music we make together is music we could never come up with individually,” Tierinii further stated. “It’s really rewarding to have so many influences in the band, and that we can find the balance between them.”

The last comment shall belong to Ori: “I’m proud that we don’t sound like anyone else. We’ve been all over the world, from Australia to Poland to Norway to Spain to Canada to Mexico. Those experiences, and all the highs and lows, it’s all reflected in the music. I’ve waited all my life to be in a band like this, and it’s amazing to me that I get to play with these people every night.”

Southern Avenue are one of the hardest touring bands I’ve seen. That’s great news for their fans. If you happen to be in Aspen, Colo., you can see them at The Après tonight. Other upcoming gigs include Chicago (Apr 13), Asheville, N.C. (Apr 19), Salisbury, N.C. (Apr 20) and New Orleans (Apr 28). Altogether, the band’s current schedule lists more than 50 gigs between now and early November in the U.S., Canada and various European countries, and I’m sure more will be added!

Sources: Southern Avenue website, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Solomon Burke/A Change Is Gonna Come

1986 album from “King of Rock ‘N’ Soul” is a soul gem

Solomon Burke came to my mind earlier today when looking at fellow music blogger Music Enthusiast’s great list of his top 25 favorite singers and commenting that I might have included Burke in that list. If I recall it correctly, a good friend of mine recommended A Change Is Gonna Come to me in the late ’80s, a few years after the album had been released in 1986.

From the get-go, I liked Burke’s voice and the way he delivered the album’s nine tunes, though sadly I never continued exploring his music beyond this record – something I’m planning to correct! A Change Is Gonna Come mixed covers of a few older classics with then-new material written by Burke and songwriters Paul Kelly, Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham and Jimmy Lewis.

The album kicks of with the Kelly composition Love Buys Love, a beautiful mid-tempo ballad.

Next up is Got To Get Myself Some Money, one of two tracks written by Burke. The upbeat tune has a great groove driven by a pumping bass and a great Memphis style horn section.

The title song A Change Is Gonna Come is the standout on the album. It truly takes Sam Cooke’s beautiful original to the next level. Burke’s singing simply gives me the goose bumps. Burke, who also was a preacher, extends the tune into a sermon. According to the liner notes of my CD, the tune has always meant a lot to Burke. He is quoted as saying, “Even though it’s a song that’s over twenty years old, it still hits home. The world’s still got problems – drugs, crime, apartheid. We’ve progressed a long way since Sam wrote that song, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Here We Go Again, the album’s second track written by Burke, has a great funk grove. It also features a cool part where Burke calls out the bassist, the guitarist and the keyboarder, with each responding by playing their respective instrument.

The last song I’d like to call out is a great cover of one of my favorite soul ballads, When A Man Loves A Woman. Written by Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, the song was first recorded by Percy Sledge in 1966. Burke’s version slightly kicks up the speed and turns the song more into a mid-tempo classic soul tune with a great horn section.

Produced by Scott Billington, A Change Is Gonna Come continued a revival of sorts in Burke’s career that began with 1984’s Soul Alive! Still, these albums, which both appeared on Rounder Records, did not bring mainstream chart success for Burke, though they increased his popularity as a live performer.

While Burke never achieved the commercial success of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and James Brown, he is considered to be one of the artists who helped shape soul music in the ’60s. He was revered by other musicians like The Rolling Stones who covered Everybody Needs Somebody to Love and Cry to Me on their second and third U.K. albums, respectively.

Late in his career, Burke finally received some well-deserved recognition. In 2001, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a performer. He also won a Grammy in 2003 for Best Contemporary Blues Album for his 2002 studio release Don’t Give Up On Me. Last but not least, Rolling Stone ranked Burke at no. 89 in its 2010 list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia, A Change Is Gonna Come Liner Notes (Jeff Hannusch), Rolling Stone, YouTube