Imagine a plate of fried chicken with collard greens, mashed potatoes, corn bread, maybe some fried green tomatoes and a big glass of sweet tea. Perhaps, you prefer crawfish and some grits, maybe biscuits. Now, follow that with a slice of sweet potato pie or a peach cobbler and a large supply of sweat, tears, heartache, joy and funk and shove the whole thing right into your earholes. That’s what it was like at the St. Paul and The Broken Bones and Humming House show at The Beacham in Orlando on January 15th, 2015, and my soul still feels content from it.
I’d been to the Beacham one other time, to see the Afghan Whigs back in September, and was really taken with it. It may well be my favorite venue now. As far as I’m concerned, smaller is always better for concerts and this place is right in the pocket where it’s small, but doesn’t feel like it could become overcrowded. I’m sure that would depend on the artists playing, but both times I’ve been there, the house was packed without feeling like maybe they should have played at a bigger place. If I have one complaint about the venue, it’s that they lean towards a little too loud on the sound for a smaller club. Maybe that’s on the band’s sound guy, but both times I’ve been there, it’s taken me a moment to adjust to the volume. Luckily, both times the performers were so good that I eventually got over it, but still, it wouldn’t hurt to bring the volume down just a tad for the sake of clarity.
I’d never heard of Humming House before, but after that night, I won’t be forgetting them. From the moment they hit the stage and I saw an upright bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar and a fiddle, I had a feeling this was going to be special for me, and I wasn’t wrong. I came to this show because I’d never seen a real, traditional soul band play live and short of this night, I might have needed a time machine to correct this. But I’d also had never seen a real folk,bluegrass band before so it seemed like my roots-loving self was getting two big helpings of fried yes tonight. Then they started playing and I have to say, there were times I was nearly emotional about how great they were. Without a doubt, this was the most fun I’ve ever seen a band have on stage.
There’s been a big trend of bluegrass covers of pop hits for a few years now, so when you hear that a band like this covered the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and Justin Timberlake’s “My Love,” you might roll your eyes at the thought of it just being hipster kitsch. This was not that. This was just a band from Nashville having a damn good time with these songs and there wasn’t a moment of that that rang as anything but true. And the reason I say that is because as fun as those covers were, their original songs were even better. This is not a band that was relying on pleasing the crowd with familiarity. Whether it was Justin Wade Tam or Leslie Rodriguez singing lead, or they were harmonizing along with Josh Wolak, Ben Jones and Bobby Chase, they were bringing it, and I was glad they did. I look forward to seeing more from them, and hey, they have a new album due out in March, so I’ll be all over that.
I’ve been waiting to see St. Paul and the Broken Bones since their debut album, Half the City, dropped nearly a year ago. So, when I found out they were playing within driving distance, I knew I was going to make that four hour drive to see them. Knowing what I know now, I’d drive at least twice as far. I’ve been watching YouTube videos of them playing live all year, so it’s not like I didn’t have a clue about how electric the performance would be, but just like pictures of the Grand Canyon may as well be drawings made by a blindfolded giraffe, there’s just no way that the level of energy they radiate can be captured by a camera.
They opened with an instrumental bit, demonstrating to full effect that while Paul may indeed be a saint of southern soul, (and he would be proving himself in that regard, repeatedly throughout the night) the Broken Bones are in the same sphere as their idols, Booker T. and the M.G.’s. There is no doubt this band can cook. I was particularly impressed by Browan Lollar on guitar. He was a constant reminder that southern soul, even in the middle of the horns and rhythms, is firmly and irrevocably rising out of the blues traditions, and specifically finger picked rhythm and blues.
Of course, once Paul hit the stage, and they started playing “Don’t Mean a Thing” the entire theater was his and his alone, for as long as he wanted. Look, there’s really no point in doing anything but this: Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, James Brown, Sam Cooke, shall I go on? The point is, these performers all seem to live inside of this man and he can’t contain them. This is a guy who has clearly been listening to and loving this music his entire life, and because he’s also extremely talented in his own right, was able to internalize it all to the point that he basically lives in a different time and place now. It’s not imitation. This is the real deal.
Whether they were playing an upbeat or sad song, the crowd was all in. At one point, Paul took off his shoe and wound up kneeling while holding it, sweating with a pained look on his face, pleading into the mic, which would be exactly the image I’d show a completely deaf person to explain what soul music is like. You know a band is good when they can do a southern soul fried cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” and David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” and they fit right in with the rest of the set. Let’s not forget that Otis Redding covered The Rolling Stonesand The Beatles, and also made them his. Like I said, this is the real deal.
At most shows, no matter how amazing, there can be a moment you feel you could do without. Or maybe a second where you just get tired and are ready for a good ending. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad show, but it happens. It didn’t happen at this show, though. There wasn’t a time that I, and it felt like the rest of the crowd, didn’t want the music to continue forever. Paul mentioned at one point that they had no idea that they’d receive such a welcome in Orlando. They truly seemed taken back by the crowd reaction. By the time Paul announced their last song, with a wink, the crowd was ready for a whole other set, never mind an encore. They came out for that encore in less than a minute, it seemed, because at that point, there was really no need to create any more sense of anticipation.
They ended the night the only way you really could end it, with a cover of “Try a Little Tenderness” just the way Otis did it. Bringing the house down may be a cliche, but there’s no other way to explain what happened. There were about 4 false endings to the song, where Paul would drop to the floor and the band would stop, only to start up again, suddenly, more fiercely than before, and Paul would somehow have the energy, after the intensity of the whole set, to jump around and dance as if it was the first song of the night. It was almost like we were watching this man dance himself to death in an R&B version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. There was no doubt once he left the stage that he was not just Paul, but Saint Paul, and we had just witnessed something religious.
This was the first show I saw this year and the bottom line is that I’m not sure it’ll be topped. It’s going to be a tough year for whoever else I see in the next 12 months and maybe after. What’s more, I think I can officially state that St. Paul and the Broken Bones are now my favorite band. Sorry everyone else, but you all need to step it up now.