A wave has been sweeping through Charlotte in recent years. The latest point of impact is the U.S. National Whitewater Center where T Bird and the Breaks bring their swaggering update of old-school soul this Saturday. To be sure, the Austin combo layers Beastie Boys beats and scorching rock guitar over their infectious grooves. Yet, as their supercharged call-and-response vocals testify, the grease and grime of road show soul runs like a riptide through their set.
T Bird is not alone in the soul resurgence. Stax Records, resurrected in 2006, is once again home to Booker T., whose Hammond B3 rhythms roll through Spirit Square in August. Gospel-infused hot ticket St. Paul & the Broken Bones are sure to win more converts when their trouser crease-tight secular tent revival hits town this fall. Capping this year's surge in October is North Carolina native Lee Fields — the kind of righteous, veteran performer who laid the groundwork for revivalists like T Bird and St. Paul. As Marvin Gaye, the soul man who heard it through the grapevine might ask, "What's going on?"
A soul revival is happening, says Lisa Barr, former general manager of Tremont Music Hall. "The digital age of music has caused some people to reach back," she says. "[They] search out records that represent music as it was before everything started to become too produced, too manicured."
Yet, can a genre have a comeback when it's never gone away? Ever since the mid-1950s when artists like Ray Charles crossed the sacred with the profane, commingling rarified gospel with gut-bucket R&B, the influence and impact of soul has coursed through American music. Soul's entwining currents of carnal impulses and higher love set the template of tension and release, which is the basis of hip-hop, funk and rock 'n' roll.
Even artists like adult contemporary maestro Lionel Richie, who plays the PNC Music Pavilion July 17, plies his trade in the soulful shadow of Motown — the label that launched his career — and Richie's cool, seductive vocals echo the naked yearning of country soul master Percy Sledge. Flamboyant rapper CeeLo Green, who opens for Richie, is also indebted to soul. His former duo Gnarls Barkley struck crossover gold with "Crazy," which harkens back to the urgent grooves of Sly Stone's 1973 album, Fresh.
Soul is a river — the Nile of American roots music, periodically overflowing its banks and depositing a rich loam of insistent grooves and melodies. Currently, those rising waters are inundating Charlotte. MaxxMusic talent buyer and promoter Laurie Koster cites the fact that "St. Paul and the Broken Bones are making their third Charlotte appearance in a year's time," as evidence of a regional soul revival.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones may well be the patron saints of soul revivalists. The Alabama combo recorded its latest LP, Half the City, at Muscle Shoals Studio, the fabled recording Mecca of soul and R&B. Though the group incorporates modern rock crunch into its attack, its soul bona-fides are authentic. Lead singer Paul Janeway was raised a strict Pentecostal and brings genuine gospel fire to his sweat-soaked performances.
Lee Fields is not a revivalist — he's the real deal, making his mark as a James Brown-style, hard-funk belter since the late '60s. Like soul, Lee Fields never really went away, mellowing and deepening into a sonorous song stylist. Fields released a new album, Emma Jean, last month, but his career jump-started in the mid-'90s when he recorded with Brooklyn-based Desco records. The Desco label splintered and spawned Daptone, which launched the career of Fields' former back-up singer Sharon Jones in the early 2000s.
Jones' success spurred the re-emergence of stars from soul's '60s heyday — Mavis Staples, Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette. LaVette proved to be much more than a soul survivor when she tore through Charlotte last December. Sassy and strutting in her late 60s, LaVette delivering a blistering performance. Genre revivalists who impacted the Queen City last year include Cody Chesnutt, whose fusion of contemporary grit with classic horn-driven soul was one of 2013's brightest gigs, and retro rock 'n soul belter Nikki Hill, who blew the doors off Snug Harbor last winter and returned to do it again in May.
Clearly the Q.C. has gotten a lot of soul love in the last year, but has the revival extended to local acts?
"Though I see an old-school soul resurgence throughout the South, I'm having a tough time spotting it in Charlotte," says Grey Revell, whose band Roman Candles stirs soulful vocals into a crackling mix of Americana, rock, pop and glam. Revell cites a few local stand-outs, including jazz-funk combo The Chemist, that boasts "a strong grasp of the '70s R&B tradition, and Cat Felicity, a great singer/songwriter with roots in the classic soul sound."
Charlotte may find its truest soul expression in the city's hip-hop community. Maf Maddix's philosophical soothsayer flow tips a cap to soul-jazz poet Gil Scott Heron, while duo Brody and Choch fuse easy charm with smooth vocals, and that's just skimming Q.C. rap's deep bench. Indeed, hip-hop's sampling of vintage soul — by artists ranging from Ghostface Killa to Kanye West — did much to fuel the current boom.
Whatever the catalyst, soul's popularity has entered an upswing. Yet, why all the interest today?
"All things are cyclical," says DJ, musician and promoter Scott Weaver, "and mass audiences embrace these things in waves.
"Popular artists like Jack White and The Black Keys have educated younger audiences about their own influences. As technology advances and the human factor is removed from our culture, people lament the loss of authenticity. The renewed interest in soul is a craving for something that was made by humans, not machines. Right now, we are definitely riding a wave, but at the end of the day, soul never goes out of style."