Numero Group, soul power to Carolina Theatre
Cutline: The Eccentric Soul Revue brought the past to the present for one night. (photos by Ryan Snyder)
“We swore we’d never do this again,” proclaimed Numero Group cofounder Ken Shipley, introducing the label’s Eccentric Soul Revue before a crowd of a few hundred retro soul fanatics at Durham’s Carolina Theatre on Saturday night. One look at the mammoth production onstage and it’s easy to see why a small archivist label might shy away from the touring business. The Tower of Power-type arrangement included a four-piece horn section, guitar, keys, bass, drums, a couple of backup vocalists and a trio of aging headlining acts whose 45s have created more dusty fingers than “Wash Me” signs on auto glass. A lot of the material was learned that day and there were a lot of moving parts, for sure, but when it was all working in sync, it was unstoppable.
The impetus of the Eccentric Soul Revue, as Shipley put it, was to give the audience an idea of what it was like to be a part of a working soul band back in the 1960s. Like a ticket to a time machine, Shipley added, and it’s as if he literally went back in time to put together a lineup of headliners that could have been superstars in an alternate universe. Leading the soul parade was Renaldo Domino, a Smokey Robinson clone with a honeyed falsetto that was nearly toothless when unearthed by Shipley and Co.; the Notations, former disciples and collaborators of Curtis Mayfield; and finally Syl Johnson, the man whose criminally overlooked recordings provided the cornerstone for hip hop in its Golden Age.
Soul revues like this one that once filled offbeat venues in every city on any given weekend were the life’s blood of working musicians like the Sweet Divines, the Divine Soul Rhythm Band and D-Town Brass, the formidable trio of soul acolytes assembled by Numero to bring to breath life back into songs like the Notations’ 2.5 millionselling single “I’m Still Here” or Domino’s minor 1969 hit “Nevermore.” They owned covers like Domino’s take on “Tainted Love,” where the Sweet Divines vocals’ reflected the warmth behind Gloria Jones’ original, and were a grounding influence on the otherwise chaotic allperformer encore of Mayfield’s “Move On Up.”
The setlist ran the gamut of old-school soul, funk, blues and R&B, and the personality of the performers varied as wildly as that of the music. Domino flexed his disco dance skills on a great slab of Northern soul called
“Don’t Go Away.” The Notations’ leader Clifford Curry led the group through an a capella tribute to their mentor Mayfield, while tenor Michael Thurman directly channeled Mayfield on the group’s hit “Super People” and got a little preachy at the conclusion of “A New Day.” The man who originally produced that song — Johnson himself — wielded delightfully tacky speech as blue as the rappers who paid him.
“Shame on a ni**a who try to run game on a ni**a,” Johnson said has he introduced “Different Strokes,” the song famously sampled by Wu Tang Clan. Johnson suggested some initial hesitation in the song’s application before giving in. “They said, ‘Hold on, we gon’ fatten yo’ pockets.’ I said, ‘Then say it again.’” His praise didn’t run quite as deep for others who hijacked the song. “Used my sh*t didn’t want to pay,” he said alluding to, but not right away naming Jay-Z and Kanye West. “We gonna get to them mothafu*kas.”
The song itself arrived and exited with violent force: a mounting wail by Johnson gave way to the vicious horn arrangement so coveted by hip-hop producers. Johnson juked, jived and stepped through “Straight Love, No Chaser” and “Try Me,” and insouciantly muddied the waters of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” with a few well-placed expletives.
Sometimes Johnson could test the band’s patience, particularly when he impelled the drummer to match snare with his crotch thrusts during an improvised movement in “Sock It to Me.” Ten count, 20 count, 30 count — despite the glares of flustered bandleader JB Flatt, Johnson didn’t seem to care that it wasn’t going anywhere. He still had funk for days.