The progressive interest in stylistically conservative music | Music Essay | Indy Week
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The progressive interest in stylistically conservative music 

Flag forward: The mighty Alabama Shakes

Photo by Don VanCleave

Flag forward: The mighty Alabama Shakes

Last March, the 63-year-old, New York-raised soul singer Charles Bradley went down to Texas, where he—like most every other band trying to make the proverbial "it" in the music industry—performed several shows for publicists, writers, agents, managers, fans and freeloaders at South by Southwest.

A chef by day and a James Brown cover artist by night, Bradley had been plucked from the clubs by the soul revivalists running the Daptone label to make a record. Austin was his chance to leave the kitchen.

Each year, a few thousand acts make this pilgrimage to Texas, hoping to sacrifice a bit of their sanity and dignity for the sake of some sliver of popularity. Most of the time, it doesn't work; generally, bands leave Austin broke, sore, sick and tired. But Bradley left with what all those younger acts had been seeking: a wave of buzz and a chance to turn this music thing into a bona fide career.

"Sometimes performances are that special, where words can't re-create them," wrote an exhilarated-to-exhaustion Jeff Weiss of Bradley's set in a review for the Los Angeles Times. "Just see Charles Bradley whenever you have the opportunity, and let's talk about it later." AOL's music blog, Spinner, ran a feature-length interview with Tommy Brenneck, the Daptone associate who helped write Bradley's debut. The music conference's official magazine, SXSWORLD, even put Bradley's sweaty, soul-pained face on its front cover, confirming that a black sexagenarian who'd seen James Brown perform at the Apollo in the '60s had somehow been the toast of the town.

But why? In a city then crowded with bands of all varieties, what made this special? Part of the answer, it seems, has to do with time.

There's a telling video from Bradley's trip south: He and his band are playing in a small space for a live session recorded by Seattle radio station KEXP. He's incredible, proving to be the real deal as he hits his knee and spreads his arms and inches toward the audience, wearing every bit of feeling behind the lyrics of "Lovin' You, Baby" on his aged face. The largely white, slightly balding audience simply stands there, listening reverently but barely reacting. Even if those in the room later wrote about Bradley as some savior, this is not their music—though, sure, they appreciate it.

During the last decade, Bradley's type of true-to-life revivalism has become very popular within the realms of R&B, soul, funk and atavistic rock 'n' roll. Firebrand Sharon Jones has performed on Saturday Night Live, and her album I Learned the Hard Way peaked at No. 15 on Billboard's Top 200. Her Dap-Kings even backed the late singer Amy Winehouse. From the Numero Group to the local Paradise of Bachelors, a bevy of reissue labels have dug deep into the crates, unearthing almost-lost moments of decades-old soul glory. Acts such as The Budos Band, The Sugarman 3 and Lee Fields have capitalized on these receptions.

In the last few months, the gritty co-ed quartet Alabama Shakes have also emerged as stars in the wings, their wizened Southern flair pushing them in short order from independent labels to ATO, the major imprint owned by Dave Matthews. In October, during the New York music conference CMJ, critic Jon Pareles of The New York Times lauded the band because they didn't play indie rock and because frontwoman Brittany Howard "performs without a hint of revivalist distance." A national crowd, he correctly concluded, was soon to follow.

There was a point in America's not-so-distant past, of course, when this sort of music—especially here, in the South—could have been classified as downright dangerous. "Race music," as it has been euphemistically and academically accepted, served as either an escape for wild youth or a litmus test for the racial and cultural tolerance of a particular area. For whites, it was often the stuff of pariahs.

In detailing the origins of the baby-oil smooth variation on R&B called beach music, for instance, the 2007 volume Southern Culture: An Introduction explains: "At Carolina Beach, North Carolina, a hole-in-the-wall dive called the Tijuana Inn had begun playing R&B music for white, working class patrons after World War II; the beach was a place to go to drink and fight (and do something else, too), a place where home proprieties were temporarily left behind, and this new 'negro' music fit the bill for the Inn's clientele and was good to dance to."

Author Clyde Edgerton echoes that idea in last year's excellent Soul Train, a poignant novel that depicts a hypothetical band of curious Eastern North Carolina boys exploring the music of James Brown in the racially polarized town of Starke in the 1960s. During a weekend variety show that was more accustomed to tired country covers, the boys blast through a perfectly choreographed take of James Brown's "Night Train."

Years later, the program's host reminisces about how that terrifying moment pulled back the hometown curtains on America's chief struggle: "Chances are very high, regardless of the undoing—the changing—of, you know, racial-epitheted names of pet dogs and mountains and streams and sections of towns throughout the South since those days in the early sixties—chances are you'd be listening to what, as a white viewer in Starke, you called ... not race music, but something worse."

There is, of course, some delight and validation in doing something that was once forbidden or even taboo publicly, in acknowledging and extolling the progress we've made. To an extent, that's why many patriots annually celebrate their country's respective independence, or why there's a new movement to honor Repeal Day (the anniversary of the 21st Amendment, which prohibited Prohibition). We do it because we now can.

In a way, after the divide between "black music" and "white music" has all but disappeared, that's how the embrace of acts such as Bradley or Jones or Alabama Shakes by audiences who historically don't listen to soul music (or rock bordering on the Black Crowes) occasionally feels. It's a chance to make up for an era of societal ills, an opportunity to get right something previous generations got horribly wrong. To call it apologetic would be reductive; to say that it's driven in part by the need to experience, understand and connect several once-forbidden dots seems closer to the essence.

That's not to take away from the power of Bradley's voice or the strength of Jones' strut; they are there, and they're very real. It's also not an indictment of embracing revivalism or championing stylistically conservative music. Rather, it's a reminder that the context of how a culture treats its artists and their art can be a precise measure of progress—and a necessary reinforcement against the worst sort of regression.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Creative anachronism & blues."

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