by The Spin
The Spin began Wednesday night with a shower: Though the feeling that good soul music gives us is a lot like taking a shower, we felt it was appropriate to step our game up. And in so doing, we missed Magnolia Sons' opening set at Mercy Lounge. Which is definitely too bad, as we dig their AM radio-friendly hooks and snappy tuxes — bad timing for semi-optional hygiene. However, Chicago trad-soul ensemble The Right Now was almost finished setting up, and we had just enough time to settle in before frontwoman Stefanie Berecz slunk to center stage in her form-fitting black gown, sequins all a-sparkle.
On their latest album Gets Over You, which we previewed on the way over, The Right Now sounded reverent and tight, but somehow lacking the self-assurance of a seasoned group. This hasty assessment bore itself out as their set began: They knew the various styles backward and forward, and they aren’t sloppy (well, maybe the one sax player who wore the wrong shirt, but they pushed him to the back and presumably docked him; we didn't see them flicking fingers at him, so we don't know how much that might have been on the James Brown Wayward Musician Pay-Docking Scale). Their arrangements were clean, their tones and playing top notch, but there was something just too crisp about their presentation. Their guitar player had an autograph on his Les Paul (on closer inspection, the signature is Les Paul's, so he gets a pass). Go ahead, call us picky: Ms. Berecz growled, but it didn't seem like she was growling with the conviction of someone whose heart is being torn up.
Then, they called a special guest to the stage: DeRobert Adams, the charismatic and gentlemanly frontman for two Music City-by-way-of-Bucket City funk and soul outfits, Sky-Hi as well as DeRobert and the Half-Truths. Dee and Stefanie did two duets, to which he appeared to know all the words by heart, and his consummate showmanship seemed to warm up the entire group. His effect on each player was subtle, but the combined effect resulted in a dramatic improvement in the last half of the set. What was an average reading of classic soul styles — with a slightly more vanilla flavor than we'd care to see again, frankly — suddenly began to drip that funky, funky good sweat. The band laid back in the pocket like newlyweds on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Ms. Berecz had been transported, and she demanded that we rush the stage to witness her testimony. Just before the close of the last number, there was a pregnant pause, wherein she visibly contracted herself, gathering all of her strength to belt one huge note to heal the hurt of a thousand lost lovers. Yep, they got it. We're definitely looking forward to seeing this version of the band again.
Before long, it was star time. In traditional soul-party fashion, The Expressions stoked the crowd for Lee Fields by dropping a couple of instrumentals, which were honestly good enough that we could handle a set of them alone (in fact, two such LPs exist). They wore old-school like a second skin, their unforced vintage look and feel a natural byproduct rather than an afterthought. As they wrapped the second number, the bass player announced Fields, who took the stage with a bounding stride we would call impressive from anyone, but the lithe and wiry 62-year-old didn't give it a second thought. He's still got it, like he says in the song of the same name from his latest LP, Faithful Man, and he's got it to burn.
With the congregation’s full attention, he let nothing break his stride. When his mic cable came unplugged for a second time, he shot one pointed look at the monitor mixer, who promptly rectified the situation with tape. Stars of his stature have been known to let little details like that fuel a temper tantrum, but Fields knows better: He stayed in control and on a roll, saving his energy to set fire to each and every song. The band took a break on one number, but he maintained his emotional intensity, even when accompanied by a solo guitar. Bringing it home to even the hardest hearts, he dedicated "Wish You Were Here" (his own song, not a Pink Floyd cover) to his father, who passed away recently. Fields is a stylistic chameleon within the realm of soul, who can be wild and commanding like James Brown, tender like Sam Cooke or shout from the top of his lungs like Bobby "Blue" Bland. No matter what he shares with other greats in his field, he accomplished exactly what he set out to do: He came out sounding like himself, and we couldn’t be happier.