Saturday, June 21, 2014

Doin' It Right

Ninety nine and a half won't do. As in, I had to have 100% of the hot, sweaty soul on Brown's Island.

I only had to hear "Call Me" once a few months back to start looking up St. Paul and the Broken Bones, immediately smitten with the septet's vintage Muscle Shoals sound. That they were playing Friday Cheers for five bones was an unexpected and exciting surprise.

Arriving early enough to find a shady spot and talk to strangers, it didn't take long to chat up a group of five people who stationed themselves near a boulder facing me.

When somebody's toddler on the loose began heading into the thicket beside the rock, one of the men in the group called out to him, "Don't go in there. The bogeyman will get you!" causing one of his female friends to look apoplectic and apologize to me by saying, "Don't worry, he's not a parent."

I told her I thought that was a good thing, but the ice had been broken and soon the non-parent was telling me that he'd come because a few months ago, he'd seen SP&TBB at a little bar in Ohio for $10 and been blown away.

Since he happened to be in Richmond visiting friends while they were playing, he'd dragged them along so they could have their socks knocked off as his had been.

Enjoyable as chatting with them was, the moment I heard the band being announced, I bolted from the shade to take my place with the crowd standing directly in front of the stage. I was three people back with a terrific view.

With a horn section (trumpet and trombone), guitar, bass, drums and keys, all of them wearing sunglasses and long-sleeved button down shirts (the drummer even had on a vest), the band kicked in with an instrumental piece to show off their chops.

They had us at the first note.

To cheering and applause, out strode bespectacled frontman Paul in a dark suit, blue and white striped shirt with French cuffs and white shoes, looking dapper and delighted to be there.

With his soulful voice and charismatic stage presence, he didn't get halfway through the song before pulling out his pocket square and waving it around.

Perhaps he was trying to dispel some of the cigar smoke hanging in the air, some of it from the two baby-faced guys standing right in front of me.

"I know it's hot, but I'm gonna need you to move!" he shouted at the large crowd with the sun on our backs. It wasn't long before the horn section removed their sunglasses between songs and wiped their entire heads dry with a towel.

Meanwhile, in front of me were three bald guys and sweat was running down their heads and necks in rivulets. "It's a hot one!" Paul called out. "I like it hot! If I ain't sweatin', I ain't doin' it right!"

Oh, he was doin' it right, all right.

By now the shirts of the horn players and guitarist were soaked through in large splotches and the audience was dancing in place to every song.

"Oh, we got you now!" Paul yelled, stating the obvious, before launching into "I'm Torn Up" and eliciting screams from women on certain heartfelt notes.

He said he was going to do Sam Cooke but Otis-Redding style and belted out "You Gotta Move," swinging the mic stand and dropping and catching the mic like a pro in between pushing his glasses up on his nose as he sweated through some serious shaking.

Not going to lie, I was having a ball, totally digging the retro sound and dance-worthy songs.

They did the title song off the new album, "Half the City," barely four months old and already sounding like classic stuff.

"Sometimes when you do this," Paul said, gesturing at his crack band, "You gotta do songs about heartbreak," a cue for him to croon "Broken Bones and Pocket Change" until our hearts were bleeding.

Reckless love has made me cold
worn down just like shoes
Ain't nobody, ain't nobody gonna love me
I'll just stand here all alone
Broken bones and pocket change
This heart is all she left me with

Maybe you had to be part of the crowd right in front of the stage, but the music was like a highly contagious fever that was sweeping through the masses, infecting everybody. Some people sang along to every word and others reacted with the marvel of first-time listeners.

I felt like I was in the center of the most soulful place in the world while they played.

Just to make sure we fully grasped their hold on us - the horns blasting the blues, the guitar worthy of the best southern rock and the rhythm section driving the bus, they reached back for their take on Wilson Pickett's "99 and a Half (Won't Do)."

I got to have all your love, night and day
Not just a little part, but all of your heart, sugar

Naturally when they did "Like a Mighty River," Paul couldn't help but gesture to the mighty James rushing by the edge of the island.

"I grew up in church in Alabama," Paul said. "So one time a night, we take you to church. Can I get an amen?" He got many amens, each round louder than the last before the song "Dixie Rothko" and its testifying began.

All at once, it was like Mother Nature had turned a switch, the sun lost behind a cloud as if the outdoor air conditioning was on just in time for "Call Me," the barn-burner that had Paul shuffling, doing his mincing dance steps, matching every note with a move until he just jumped off the stage and started performing on the grass between the stage and barricades.

This ain't the heart that I thought I knew
This ain't the party that I found with you
You got your limits, baby
I got mine

They had to follow that with a slow burner and it was only the lack of a partner that prevented me from slow dancing to it.

I wasn't the only one bummed when Paul announced it was their last song - many people screamed out, "no!" in protest- despite sweaty dancing in the bright summer sunshine for over an hour.

From the first low-key notes of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness," there was a great divide between those who recognized it immediately and those who were clueless.

Pretty much anyone under 30 had no idea what the song was while a guy next to me looked at me with an enormous grin and said, "Oh, hell, yes!" and every middle-aged person began gearing up for the song's killer release.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones left Richmond sweatier and with their souls stirred after a kick-ass performance worthy of a far cooler stage. We can only hope they'll bring their swampy Alabama sound back sooner rather than later.

Walking back across the bridge to 5th Street, I passed a guy who asked me how the band had been. After as succinct a rave as I could come up with on the spot, he moaned, "Damn, I shouldn't have gone out for $2 beers, I should have come straight here!"

You don't even know, mister.

Ready to eat after sweating to the new oldies, I found myself on a bar stool at Camden's next to a woman who'd recently moved here from Austin.

A new Manchester resident, she'd just discovered the neighborhood restaurant and was reveling in what she called the friendly vibe "It's like being in someone's house") while trying to decide what to eat. Me, I was diving into a stellar meat and cheese board with local Prosciutto, soft bleu cheese, pickled pear and grilled bread.

I couldn't resist asking her what she'd been up to since she moved here in April, but I also couldn't help but make a few suggestions when she mentioned how challenging it can be to find the good stuff when you're a newcomer.

What was cute was how she made notes on her phone about everything I shared.

The sunset series in Scuffletown Park went into her phone She made a note to like Hardywood on Facebook once I told he about their cultural events. The pipeline walkway and the buttermilk trail were duly noted.

And of course I had to make sure she knew about Friday Cheers and the fabulous band I'd just witnessed. Having grown up listening to her father's classic rock and vintage soul, her interest was piqued.

S-T-P-A-U-L-&-T-H-E-B-R-O-K-E-N-B-O-N-E-S, she painstakingly typed.

"I'm going to go right home and look them up," she said, smiling and gathering up her to-go order of grilled salmon. "Thank you so much for all the suggestions! I have really enjoyed talking to you. I hope I see you around."

Chances are good.

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