Sharon Jones, Daptone Super Soul Revue Channels James Brown at the Apollo: Concert Review
Brooklyn's Daptone record label, the soul outfit whose ear for talent and eye for period-correct detail has put it in the forefront of a revivalist wave, had few choices when it came to recording its first live-in-concert label showcase. How could they not go to the Apollo, that cradle of talent immortalized by James Brown on one of the greatest concert recordings ever?
Brown's memory was invoked more than once Saturday, the closing of a three-night "Daptone Super Soul Revue" that served, at various moments, as coming-out party, effusive comeback celebration, and defiant jam session. The crackerjack production whisked six acts on and off the stage seamlessly over the course of three hours, one group starting before the previous one's ovation had died down. Those transitions were helped, of course, by the overlapping nature of the bands, with label owners Gabriel Roth (aka Bosco Mann) and Neal Sugarman frequently among the instrumentalists backing up assorted vocalists.
The evening started with Saun & Starr, who are backup singers for the night's headliner, Sharon Jones, and recently debuted on their own with the 7-inch single "Hot Shot." The women looked perfectly comfortable in the spotlight, delivering a few not-terribly-memorable songs with a likeable sisterly chemistry. Clearly energized by the venue, the Bronx natives recalled getting some of their first stage time here decades ago.
Veering from an emerging act to a rediscovered veteran, organizers then brought out Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens. Shelton may have needed help getting out to the mike, but she sang with authority during the evening's brief sanctified interlude: In a voice with a strong low register and evangelical rasp, she called for witnesses in "Thank You Lord" and sang convincingly about enduring "desperate times" with His help. Splendid in a black robe with iridescent decorations and a sequined Sunday-best cap, she offered some sartorial competition to her more flamboyant labelmate Charles Bradley.
Bradley wouldn't take the stage until after a strong performance by the Sugarman 3, an instrumental combo that proved to be a septet, not a trio. Playing over a solid organ groove, leader Neal Sugarman delivered music that sometimes sounded like a forgotten Blaxploitation soundtrack but was never generic or time-filling. Sugarman's in-the-pocket soul jazz made much more sense to some in the crowd than the polarizing music of the night's other instrumental group, the Budos Band: Though they've shown a strong affinity for African music in the past (especially the funky jazz of early-1970s Ethiopia), here the group came on like the Black Sabbath of Soul. Songs from their first record in four years, Burnt Offering, were a fuzzy squall of proto-metal and Jared Tankel's foghorn-like baritone saxophone. Bandmates frequently thrust the horn-fingered metal salute in the air and exhorted the seated crowd to get on their feet — while a substantial contingent did, dancing in the aisles to the psychedelic assault, quite a few were nonplussed.
In between these two bands was the artist who, in charisma if not set list placement, was the night's real co-headliner. Bradley, in a bedazzled blue jumpsuit worthy of the Godfather of Soul, channeled Brown in his own idiosyncratic way, with more coyness than swagger and the occasional unironic robot dance move thrown in for fun. Leading with "You Put the Flame On It," he exuded gratitude toward a fan base who, as he said, had rescued him from homelessness and allowed him to do "something I love — to please you." (The singer's story is told in the 2012 doc Charles Bradley: Soul of America.) Anyone who only knew Bradley's magnificent hard-times lament "The World (Is Going Up in Flames)" here found a performer equally attuned to life's sweeter side, offering Otis-grade passion on the ballad "Lovin' You, Baby" and dropping to the ground to romance a front-row blonde during "Let Love Stand A Chance," a heartfelt declaration of love's superiority to mere lust.
As involving as Bradley's backstory is, it was Jones whose triumph over hardship brought the house down. Midway through her 45-minute set, the singer turned the song "Get Up and Get Out" (from her latest LP give the People What They Want, just nominated for a Grammy) into an extended comment on her recent battle with pancreatic cancer. She started playfully, imagining how Tina Turner would deliver the tune, before speaking mid-song about a low point in her treatment: Feeling disgusted with a body so punished that even her nose hair was gone, she recalled in a sermon-like delivery, she looked in the mirror and "took a picture — pop! — and I put it on Facebook.
"And you said, 'Sharon!'
"'We love you the way you are!'"
The crowd erupted as Jones, none the worse for wear, led her band the Dap-Kings through a rave-up conclusion to the song. Lumps in throats had barely subsided by the time Jones wound up the evening's most energized performance, doubling up her horn section and pulling in a second drummer for a roof-raising encyclopedia of dance fads. Watching her plow through the Jerk, the Tighten Up, and the Mashed Potato, one had only the shortness of her hair as a clue to her recent illness. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business may have set a high standard in this room back in 1962, but Jones had little trouble keeping the stage warm in his absence.