Vinyl District – Graded on a Curve: “A”

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Posted 13 Aug 2013

Under their original lineup, Barrence Whitfield and the Savages came up with a pair of very sweet LPs in the 1980s that combined attention to such fine precursors as ‘50s rockabilly, uncut ‘60s R&B and the eternal grandeur of The Sonics. In 2010 three-fourths of that group recommenced activity with an unusually high standard of quality, and now they’ve come up with a blues-kissed rock ‘n’ soul humdinger of a record with theBloodshot Records-issued Dig Thy Savage Soul. As its twelve songs unwind, not only do they return to classic form, but Whitfield and his band also achieve the seemingly impossible; they exceed it.

First arriving on the scene at a time when punk rock and its subsequent offshoots were at loose ends and for many had basically run their course, Barrence Whitfield and the Savages can be considered a major component in a widespread mid-‘80s back-to-basics impulse. This urge to reexamine the eternal potency residing in the heart of rock ‘n’ roll’s roots asserted itself in earnest after a major portion of the decade’s musical action, both popular and underground, had become simply too highfalutin for many to endure.

While traces of this never really explicitly defined movement can be uncovered even at the very start of the ‘70s punk shebang (and prior, of course), roughly ten years later droves of folks were tapping into ‘60s garage (largely inspired by a spate of compilations that dug under the fertile surface of Nuggets), raw ‘50s rockabilly (pointed in this direction mostly either by The Cramps or The Stray Cats), and a few even blended an assortment of inspirations into an approach that was aptly described as roots-reverent (The Blasters, a superb Los Angeles group, served as a top-notch early exemplar of this style.)

Naturally, some of this stuff retained loose ties to punk, but the majority of it actually had little overt connection with lip-snarl and kerrang of the ’77-variety. It wasn’t a specifically underground scenario, either; Los Lobos became quite a commercial factor, for just one example. However, Whitfield and the Savages emerged with a punk background and energy, yet they lacked potentially off-putting gestures, being best described on their first two LPs as a hopped-up party band. They were certainly raucous, but were never abrasive in execution.

 

Well, unless you consider the prime material from ‘60’s Washington state garage monsters The Sonics abrasive or somehow off-putting. The enduringly gigantic sound of that unit can be assessed as a major stylistic predecessor to the brand of forceful motion the Savages’ specialized in. Except that instead of just bearing down and blaring it out ala The Sonics, this ‘80s Boston group utilized a sly handle on finesse, the better to spotlight the abilities of their highly talented vocalist leader.

Barrence Whitfield (born Barry White, adopting a stage name for rather obvious reasons) first gave rock ‘n’ roll a try while living in New Jersey, but nothing panned out. He moved north to study journalism at Boston University, and while working in a record shop in the city he struck up a relationship with a few Beantown punk vets that were in the early stages of forming a band. This bunch included his co-worker Peter Greenberg, Phil Lenker, and Howie Ferguson, all formerly of oft terrific Boston unit The Lyres, with Ferguson also an ex member of the swell Real Kids.

Everyone bonded over a shared love for primo ‘60’s soul and R&B, and with hotly honking sax player Steve LaGrega completing the picture, Barrence Whitfield and the Savages came into being shortly thereafter. They honed their attack at parties and on local stages and then cut their self-titled first LP, the album issued on the small Mamou label. On one hand that disc is just some right-minded guys laying into some spirited non-sophisto rock ‘n’ soul. But on the other it’s delivered with such smarts (landing directly between respect and aggressive transformation) that it stands up tall as a classic.

At this point the band was a covers-centric outfit whose main ambition was to cut loose on the bandstand at any given opportunity. In an era that brandished a highly-developed approach to record production, the bare-bones Barrence Whitfield and the Savages easily connected like a calling card for a sweaty, booze-fueled live experience, and yet they still managed to garner some national attention on the back of positive reviews.

In ’85 the group knocked out a follow-up LP Dig Yourself on Rounder. It featured stronger production than the debut, but otherwise their style was essentially the same. Unsurprisingly, the band’s rep spread, especially in the UK, where their fans included both Elvis Costello and Robert Plant. But then quickly, the original incarnation of the band was done.

Barrence recruited a fresh lineup of Savages that produced a pair of discs, ‘87’s Ow! Ow! Ow! and ‘89’s Live Emulsified, both for Rounder. A newfound attention was paid to Whitfield’s impressive talents, and even on the live disc, the raucousness was less immediate. While still enjoyable affairs, a substantial amount of the early magic was lost. Other albums followed, including a pair of Savage-less collabs with Texas C&W musician Tom Russell, but I’ll confess to losing track of Barrence’s gifts.

In a fantastic turn of events, 2010 found Whitfield reunited with Greenberg and Lenker, the trio rounding up a batch of sympathetic cohorts (Andy Jody on drums, James Cole on piano and organ, and Tom Quartulli on sax) to record a fine little disc titled Savage Kings. Hitting the rack the following year via the small but estimable Spanish record label Munster, the LP provided a strong snort of the original Savages’ splendid gusto.

Happily, they weren’t satisfied with just one record as evidence of their return to form. Now signed to Bloodshot Records, a maneuver that will certainly increase their profile with interested parties, they’ve come up with Dig Thy Savage Soul,and the results find them easily retaining their energy and edge on a dozen cuts.

Coming across immediately is how infused with punk spirit they are. Plum doozy of an opener “The Corner Man” should squeeze the glands of any Sonics acolyte you’d care to play it for, with Barrence’s roar in top-notch emotive form throughout as the rhythm section bears down to glorious work and entertains nary a whit of grandstanding. In consort, Greenberg’s raw guitar tone is truly the max from start to finish.

You say you want solos? Well okay partner, “The Corner Man” holds a couple superior ones, brief and simple as apropos to this kind of rich mania, on both sax and guitar, with Greenberg’s erupting like the beautiful essence of a beer-drenched night in the midst of a lone gone Hot Rod Summer. Yes, the punk template is of ‘60s vintage, but the power is pure ’77, and Barrence and crew harness it will great skill.

“My Baby Didn’t Come Home” is a bluesy mid-tempo groover that emphasizes the leader’s undiminished range, with Whitfield’s shouting halfway between Big Joe Turner and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. And the band’s performance is tiptop. Particularly of note is the horn section, blowing hot and thick, with Quartulli’s solo a wonderful essay in how not to play too many freaking notes.

And titling a song “Oscar Levant” is just a primer in classy cool. Levant had it in spades (An American in Paris or The Band Wagon, anyone?) and so does Barrence. The tune is a total ripper, with the strength of the singer’s voice stealing the show. But as the songs progress, the whole band is killing it with relish and without a misstep in sight.

“Bread” is a rousing take of a crafty little tune from Bobby Hebb, known mostly for his excellent oldies rotator “Sunny,” but additionally noted as the holder of quite a varied career, including membership in Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys and serving as co-headliner on a tour with The Beatles. The fact that Barrence knows deep cuts like this one is a big part of his appeal. Not interested in one-upmanship, he just wants to share the good stuff. Initially coming on like the Mar-Keys on steroids, “Bread” quickly builds into a brawny rock ‘n’ soul stomp with some very welcome backing vocals from Beth Harris.

There’s a nasty blues thread laced into the weave of “Hangman’s Token,” but in integrating this element the music never stops connecting like an amped-up Savages, and that’s just bonus. And “Daddy’s Gone to Bed” extends this blues template, presenting a true rarity; a band that not only deeply understands the inherent burning simplicity of the classic ‘50s Memphis-derived electric blues but also knows how to adapt it to their own brand of party/club uproar without the slightest bit of creative friction.

“Blackjack” is a short tribute to those lost sax-driven instrumental zingers of the early-‘60s, and it’s a stone gas. “Hey Hey Little Girl” is a majestic slice of old-school R&B infused with just the right level of contempo oomph; all the solo spots are superbly rendered and Whitfield holds court like a fun-loving benevolent king. And a take of Lee Moses’ “I’m Sad About It” brings some deep soul fervor to the proceedings; Barrence’s testifying is right up there with “Oscar Levant” as one of Dig Thy Savage Soul’s highpoints.

“Show Me Baby” continues mining the soul zone with grand results (with another excellent backup singer spot), and like the aforementioned double-dip into the blues, it details this record’s well-considered construction. Often this sort of stripped-down stuff can register like a big hyperactive spurt of unpremeditated mayhem, but it’s clear that a whole lot of thought went into the making of this record, and this only increases its overall worth.

With “Sugar,” Barrence’s booming voice enters into a smoking dialogue with Quartulli’s sax, and Greenberg’s clean-toned hard-struck guitar brings it all together. And with a cover of Jerry McCain’s “Turn Your Damper Down,” the band returns to the blues once more and winds Dig Thy Savage Soul to an exceptional close.

Prior to approaching this record, I mainly hoped it would retain the strengths of their prior album Savage Kings. I had no idea that I’d be assessing this as the best record in the band’s career. Heavy partisans of the debut and Dig Yourself might consider this sacrilege, but please listen before fuming. Not only is this the strongest Savages release in terms of production value, but it also wins out in terms of inspired focus and pure energy.

Next to Dig Thy Savage Soul, most of the reunion affairs I’ve heard register as weak tea. This won’t likely be my pick for the best release of 2013 (though it won’t miss by much) but it’s definitely a prime contender for the year’s happiest surprise.