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Funk, hard work and persistence build following for SoloS

by Jordan Green

They gather around a high wooden table at the Stratford Road Carrabbas Italian Grille near their rehearsal space in Winston-Salem, the collective mood tending towards taciturn, occasionally sharing the crackles of laughter that are the hallmarks of any collection of individuals locked into a creative groove for roughly half a decade.

Bass player John Ray orders a draft beer. John Harris, one of the SoloS Unit’s two MC-vocalists, settles on a glass of red wine. Drummer Jason Tuttle asks for a glass of water. No one’s ordering food at first, but later guitarist Bill Stevens will have a salad. There are five of them here – the whole band, with the exception of guitarist Joseph Hundertmark, who recently relocated to New York.

“Can I get you anything to eat?” asks the waiter, a slender, clean-cut man with a discernible Boston-Irish accent.

“We’re just gonna sit here and chill, if that’s okay,” Harris says.

“Just gonna eat the free bread, huh?”

Harris shrugs.

Though a steady road diet of ramen noodles and dollar-menu McDonalds hamburgers wouldn’t attest to it, the SoloS Unit has secured a respectable standing in Winston-Salem’s eclectic music scene, mostly by virtue of their regular Monday night shows at the now defunct Rubber Soul, where they often filled the club to capacity with midnight patrons queuing outside. They’ve collaborated with musicians like the Allman Brothers’ Oteil Burbridge and shared stages with everyone from the Roots to the Wu Tang Clan.

They have an independent release, Electric City, under their belts. And on Friday they embark on their second extended tour – a three-night swing through New England, followed by a stop at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York and then a haul down to the Off the Grid Music Festival in Tennessee.

Their press kit lists their current number of shows per month as 10, with a stated desire of tripling that figure, average road pay at $600 per gig, and hometown average pay and draw quantified at “at least $1,000/ as many as will fit in the club.” Stevens currently spends about six hours a day working the internet and phone to nail down gigs. He’d like to hand off that responsibility to a professional booking agent.

The audience-tested sonic hovercraft that is the SoloS Unit is a refined vehicle – equal parts classical training and improvised inspiration, a combination of poetry and hip-hop flow carried forward by the locomotion of smooth jazz-funk with soulful accents, and no small amount of brassy self assurance.

“I just call people up and bug the shit out of them, and persuade them that we’re the best damn thing that’s ever happened,” Stevens says, explaining his cold-call approach with out of town club owners. “Normally, if we’ve played somewhere once, they want us back.”

Here’s how it started.

John Harris and Nathan Harris (no relation) started MC-ing together in Boone, where John was attending Appalachian State University. They returned to Winston-Salem and fell in with a weekly jam session at Morning Dew with instrumentalists from Gomachi and Dystonic. When Morning Dew closed they took their act over to Rubber Soul.

“When Bill started working with us is when it started moving from improvisation to composed pieces,” says John Harris, a history, philosophy and religion major who competes in poetry slams across the nation.

“I really felt no pressure,” he says of the evolution of the band’s sound during those weekly sessions in front of enthusiastic audiences. “We really had the luxury of playing what felt right. That’s really a wonderful, magical thing when you play what you want and people consent to it.”

When the SoloS Unit’s original drummer left they went through a string of temporary players before Jason Tuttle, a 27-year-old church-trained drummer who serves as musical director at Higher Ground Deliverance Ministries in Winston-Salem, sat in.

“Before him, the drummers we used were a lot more light-handed, jazzy,” John Harris says. “They were good, but it was not….”

“Beastly,” Nathan Harris says, finishing his fellow MC’s sentence.

“Maybe it would mean steady, heavy and confident,” Stevens says.

“Very much in the pocket,” Nathan Harris concludes.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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