The concept behind Beat 'n' Soul is straightforward enough: two nights of veteran and revivalist garage rock and soul at one club in St. Louis. Think of it as a mini Ponderosa Stomp for the River City. In terms of quality, the lineup for the maiden voyage could hardly have been stronger, and if attendance was light for the first night, the groove was heavy.
Those who showed up early (the music at Off Broadway began at 6:30 p.m.) claim the teenage band Northbrook Garage (from greater Chicago) nailed a set dominated by covers, including an R&B instrumental version of "Sounds of Silence," an Amy Winehouse tune and Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love." That's what you might call knowing your audience. Memphis band the River City Tanlines followed; one of the organizers described the group as "the Stooges fronted by a woman playing a Flying V." The hearsay had me regretting a late dinner that made me miss both openers.
The Beatdowns, from Columbus, Ohio, got started by 8:30 p.m., focusing on Rickenbacker twelve-string guitar and organ-driven UK rock, deeply indebted to mono Kinks, early Who and the Yardbirds, but with some surprisingly strong original material that kept the set from ever sounding overly slavish to its Brit invasion overlords. (And before we go any further, I should announce that I've known all of the players for years and also consider the event organizers good friends.) The band is a de-twanged, de-saxed version of defunct Columbus band the Sovines, with Great Plains' Mark Wyatt on keys, lead vocals and shaggy mane. The band is recently down to just one guitarist, but on tunes like the Marshall Crenshawish "Disconnected Girl," a cover of the Who's "La-La-La Lies" and a smashing and slashing closer "Baby! Let's Get Lost," the sound was loose, bright and exuberant.
Along with headliners the Dynamites (featuring Charles Walker), the night's main attraction was the Bo-Keys, a super group of Memphis legends, led by bassist and producer Scott Bomar, and featuring renowned Hi Records drummer Howard Grimes, organist Archie "Hubie" Turner, trumpeter and singer Ben Cauley and another Stax veteran, guitarist Charles "Skip" Pitts. From the opening instrumental, "20-75" by Willie Mitchell, it was clear the seven-piece band (with three horns) wouldn't have pulled a punch even if the audience begged for mercy - which they didn't, certainly not when Cauley took a vocal turn on "These Arms of Mine" and "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay."
If you think we need a constitutional amendment barring anyone other than the ghost of Otis Redding from singing those songs, think again, as Cauley, a founding member of the Bar-Kays, worked with Redding and was the only survivor of the fateful December 1967 plane crash. Last night, his voice was tarnished and raw, yet almost unbearably moving. As the set moved from classic instrumentals like "Soul Finger" and greasy originals like "Deuce and a Quarter," the band remained locked into Grime's muscular clocking, and guitarist Pitts chimed in with devilish soul toasts. "Put one hand in the air and the other in your underwear!" he growled, and a few ladies in front complied. He sounded like a Kools-and-ground-glass cross between Wolfman Jack and Howlin' Wolf. On the set-ending version of "Theme from Shaft," no one doubted that he was the guitarist who had slung the original wacka-wacka-wah-wah hook or that this was a band that deserves a first citation in the definitive dictionary of soul.
Musical director Bill Elder (aka Leo Black) brought on the Dynamites to warm up, in traditional R&B revue fashion, while the band's singer ditched his tracksuit for a wicked, mulberry jacket and silver tie, sharp as a 1964 night at the Apollo. Charles Wigg Walker, who makes his home in Nashville and has been singing since the '50s, is a remarkable performer, a small man with a titanic moan, and with the footwork to navigate the darting time-shifts of the Dynamites' math funk. There's zero nostalgia in his delivery or in the band's focus on original material, including a stormy "Burn It Down" and a slinky (it's the right word) "Slinky." As the band finally cooled down for fully re-imagined version of "Summertime," Walker, eyes closed against the streams of sweat, found a way to make the aria's archetypal images his own. His voice simply filled the room with the emotion; it wasn't a performance. It was just an expression of soul.