Review: Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings at Bowery Ballroom

Dale W. Eisinger

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings led a dual bill, with Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens, at Bowery Ballroom Wednesday night to a sold-out crowd. It was the last of the King’s 2011 tour and the final of four New York shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of Daptone Records.

For the relative youth of the label, each frontlady-built ensemble reaches far back into the American catalog of soul, funk, and gospel. And though the “revivalist” label has been tagged to both groups, experience and age tells us that Jones and Shelton both are just doing what they always have -- it’s more the public’s fault for not rushing to a wonked-out mashed potato sooner.

Shelton, in a jacket flashing with the gold scales of a costume goldfish, conducts no less than a sermon. Her advisory gospel demands a lot of the audience: “gimmea,” “come on,” “tell me how you feel,” a few dozen reps of “testify,” she incited, all while pulling prolonged hand clasps and soul-piercing gazes from the front rows. As Shelton made no attempt to conceal her ministry, the set bordered on the glossolalia of fundamentalism. But then what music, at its most provocative, doesn't animate the unknown?

The core rhythm trio, looking fresh-plucked from jazz conservatory, played behind the beat, giving most of the grid and comp to Rhodes master Cliff Driver. Had Driver been a little higher in the mix, the entire band might not have dragged behind the singers. Or maybe the round, staccato Rhodes tones can take the blame for not pushing the group a little harder.

Before closing with an implicative “What Have You Done, My Brother” Shelton belted a calmly resigned "I'll Take the Long Road,” with her trio of backup gospel queens. Sort of a well-worn metaphor but an easy one to sell to a restless, jittery crowd that needed a good work-over before Jones took the stage.

The Dap Kings warmed up on a front-sided “Broadway Shuffle” before bringing out the Dapettes. This sub-duo to the nonet of the Kings commented on Amy Winehouse’s recent passing -- The Dap Kings backed Winehouse during the Back in Black era. “We love Amy and we miss Amy very much,” Saundra Williams, one of the Dapettes, told me earlier in the day. Williams sang backing vocals on the posthumous Winehouse cut, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," off the Dec. 6 Lioness: Hidden Treasures release. She took a warm-up lead on “You Can Run But You Can’t Hide” following fellow Dappette Starr Duncan’s powerhouse “Stop.”

The Dapettes took the background and Jones emerged for “He Said, I Can.” She sparked the crowd on a few other burners (“Lay It In The Cut,” “Without a Heart”) before cutting into a very, very extended “When I Come Home.” As per ritual, The Dap Kings swapped out dance grooves at Jones’ request, alternating demonstrations that would vogue at any Soul Clap and Dance Off: she mashed potatoed, she boogalooed, she ponied, she funky chickened and she taught us how. Jones jostled various enthusiastic audience members on stage to cut the rug, somewhere in the deep groove of this song and throughout the night.

This is what feels so refreshing about the soul revival: the culture rejects the exclusionary aspects that have plagued youth movements since the birth of the cool. Between teaching the audience the dance moves, the learn-them-now call and response lyrics, and predominately major tonalities, everyone is invited to this party. Sing along -- it’s easy! Dance how you want -- it’s so much fun! Mine your sorrow—it can be a source of joy!

Though everyone’s invited to her party, Jones for certain is a Diva, capital D (as an upcoming VH1 episode will inform). The set seems to be built around her stamina. She brings the crowd up with these quickstep numbers, and then takes her breath on the ballads. And though it’s definitely her show, Jones isn’t above letting the band drive. New tune “Calamity” took a rocky, blistering start but congealed roughly at the end, though Jones said she couldn’t remember the lyrics before the show.

By the time the band had to bounce after the relatively down tempo “100 Days, 100 Nights” The Dap Kings closed it out, the crowd still wasn’t having it, dragging the band back out. Jones and the Kings left on an underhanded political note, reaching deep for a decidedly cynical Christmas song, “Ain't No Chimneys In The Projects.”

Happy holidays, right?

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