The Godmother of Soul

by Ryan Snyder

Sharon Jones unleashed onstage at the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

You could walk into a meat locker after doing a P90X circuit and have less steam billowing from your head than Dave Guy did from his clean-shaven dome Thursday night at the Shakori Hills Festival. Temperatures in Silk Hope barely dipped below 60 degrees, but the Dap-Kings trumpeter was a victim of his band’s own designs:

They’re simply too hot for their own good. Standing on the main stage before one of the festival’s biggest Thursday night crowds ever, the Dap-Kings are something of an anachronism. Dressed in slick sharkskin suits, the 11-piece from Brooklyn that once backed Amy Winehouse practices the most retro of funk, knee-deep in the waters of Stax, but they do it in a way that’s revivalist rather than redundant. Opening with a fully instrumental round that allowed each section of stage to flex their considerable abilities, they’re game is modeled closely after the soul revues that James Brown honed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, right down to the syncopated steps and vintage instruments. Like the JBs, there’s an undeniable source of fiery, swaggering funk at the helm: Ms. Sharon Jones.

When rhythm guitarist Binky Griptite called for the star of the show, naming off the hits for which she was responsible much like Danny Ray once did for Brown, Jones presented herself with a fury. It’s no surprise that Jones gave a close study to the Godfather of Soul in her youth. The 55-year-old singer struts, stomps and finger-wags around the stage with an authority that speaks directly to her time as a prison guard, all in contrast to the Dap-Kings’ businesslike deportment. Her visceral energy combined with mind-blowing pipes and contagious charisma also recalls another timeless marvel, Tina Turner.

Unlike the somewhat self-possessed soul mavens of yore, Jones directly engaged the crowd. She invited throngs of gyrating fans onstage without prejudice, from the crustiest of festivalians to sweatered preps. It was a nod of expectation — those who didn’t groove their hardest were culled from the herd with impunity. One woman who was ejected for shyness got a little too comfortable later on and attempted to board the mothership during one of Jones’ entranced dance tangents. She was crossly waved away. Those who did her bidding became part of the Sharon Jones spectacle. One lucky chap prac tically got the Nicki Minaj treatment from Jones.

Missing from the set was bassist and Dap- Kings co-founder Gabriel Roth (known better by his deliciously retro handle Bosco Mann) and in his place was lady bassist Hagar Ben Ari. Like Mann and essentially the rest of her band, she’s not flashy, but she was always entrenched in the pocket, fueling the motor that drives the irrepressible Jones.

And Jones ran on high octane. When she addressed the audience, she did so through stream of consciousness diatribes. On “When I Come Home,” she invoked her entire arsenal of dance moves, calling them out and then demonstrating them in succession. She conjoined the Tighten Up, the Swim, the Boogaloo, the Hitchhike and Mashed Potato much like her teacher James Brown did on Live At the Apollo. It wasn’t all tour de force funk, however. Jones summoned the knee-buckling soul of ’60s girl pop just as easily as she brought the thunder.

The band left the stage shortly after Jones stomped off after 75 minutes, only to have Griptite reappear to taunt the crowd that the show was, in fact, over. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. The answer to his question, “Do you want some more?” couldn’t have been more obvious. Jones returned to belt out his most recognizable hit, “100 Days, 100 Nights,” over a lengthy assault of jams and dance improv. Everything about it was vintage, sure, but like some things, it’s a sound that gets better with age.