This Just In: H-Town Remains Soul City

Surely it was no coincidence. A packed house at Walter’s Friday night – and I mean packed, as in the maximum occupancy certificate of 135 was more of a guideline than a rule, though there was still (barely) enough room to get to the bar and merch booth - was still buzzing about the vivacious gypsy stylings of opening duo the Ivan Meliv Band. The weather was as bad, if not worse, than the previous Friday, so a few hardy smokers shivered while indulging their habit in the puddle-strewn parking lot, while disappointed procrastinators shuffled away from the door upon learning “no tickets at the door” does, in fact, mean no tickets at the door.

Back inside, the impeccably attired Dap-Kings – the Brooklyn-based ensemble currently schooling a generation of American Apparel shoppers in vintage soul, both through their regular gig as Georgia-born dynamo Sharon Jones’ backing band and their work on Amy Winehouse’s hit 2007 album Back to Black - filed onstage. Back in the day, it was customary for soul groups to warm up the crowd with a couple of instrumentals before yielding the spotlight to their singer, and the Dap-Kings were no different. But this time the warm-up was familiar: a pair of bubbly chords that at this point, for all intents and purposes, are every Houstonian’s birthright. Here, take a moment to refresh your memory:

That’s right, the Dap-Kings tightened up on the drums, the bass and everything else with a watertight version of the immortal Archie Bell/TSU Toronados instrumental. Then they brought out Jones, a pocket-sized diva with a five-alarm gospel-cured voice, for a rousing set that, save a soundboard hiccup or two, split the difference between Stax and Motown, with both resolute indie nerds and the scattered few on hand who actually remembered the Sixties firsthand finding their groove.

It was the rare show people had been talking about for months that actually delivered on its promise, even if several in attendance - including, according to a Press staffer who chatted with a couple band members next door at Chaise Lounge after the show, Jones and the Dap-Kings themselves - openly wished it had been at the Continental Club (next time…), and will no doubt be on several best-of-2008 lists 11 long months from now. As great as it was, though, after that unexpected “Tighten Up” introduction – greeted with an appreciative cheer by the one-third or so of the audience who recognized it – the rest couldn’t help but feel a little anticlimactic. But it just goes to show how much “Tighten Up” remains Houston’s musical calling card all these years later. Lucky us.

Now another heavy hitter from the “Tighten Up” days is back in action, albeit for one show only. This Friday, the Kashmere Stage Band will play their first show in almost 30 years on the same stage where legendary band director Conrad O. “Prof” Johnson built them up into one of the nation’s foremost prep-school groups. Between 1968 and 1978, the KSB won a staggering 42 competitions out of the 46 they entered, including the 1972 All American Stage Band contest, where they were named “Most Outstanding Band in the Nation.” They didn’t do it with a bunch of John Phillip Sousa marches, either – they played the same blistering funk licks blasting out of Black America’s radios at the time, evoking favorable comparisons to James Brown and the Bar-Kays.

According to the 2-CD 2006 KSB anthology Kashmere Stage Band: Texas Thunder Soul’s liner notes, available on the Web site of L.A.-based label Now-Again Records, “Johnson didn’t simply throw funk beats beneath a jazz song to please his kids. He instructed his band to play funk because he respected the funk idiom in the same way he respected jazz.” Many hip-hop DJs continue to sample the KSB’s Texas Thunder Soul, songs like Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio” and the Soulful Strings’ “Burning Spear,” to this day.

Friday’s concert is a tribute to Johnson, now retired and 92 years old, who composed and arranged much of the KSB’s music and also helped his students hone their own composing and arranging skills. Much more on the KSB later this week. – Chris Gray


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