The promise of rock & roll has always been the promise of being forever young, and last night the patrons at Off Broadway got a good argument for music's gift of eternal youth. The inaugural weekend of the (hopefully) annual Beat 'n' Soul festival ended with a choreographed, well-practiced but entirely from-the-heart performance by the Fleshtones. The four members of the legendary New York City garage-rock combo are in their mid-50s, but they grooved with enough hot-rock action and calisthenic prowess to power a dozen bands half their age.
For a music festival that is set upon exploring the rich nexus between rock and soul, the Fleshtones were a fine closing act in a night filled with raw, ragged guitars and greasy teenage soul. Opening with "Hitsburg USA," the quartet wasted no time is plowing through an hour-plus set of songs from its nearly 35-year career. Lead singer and occasional organist Peter Zaremba has the guileless bravado or a front man who is preaching to the converted, and with his swooping grey haircut, he looked like a cross between his Yep Roc label mates Nick Lowe and Robyn Hitchcock. "Feels Good to Feel" gave Zaremba a chance to blow on his blues harp between his frugging '60s dance moves (take note, Beatle Bob), and bassist Ken Fox and guitarist Keith Streng followed suit with some choreographed pivot-turns. (They would later make good use of their wireless pickups and ascend Off Broadway's bar).
And it that showmanship wasn't quite enough (and it was, especially given the raw-power guitar fuzz being created amid the stage moves), the band members handed off their axes to members of Mondo Topless and the Sights to engage in a push-up competition on the venue's dance floor. By my count, Streng did at least 15 push-ups before challenging fans to follow suit. Rockers, take note: If you want to continue burning down stages well into your twilight years, you'd better get a gym membership.
While the Fleshtones came to town as the beloved underground kings of the garage-rock scene, Chicago's JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound argued its own case for royalty in the well-tailored soul revival. The band played a killer set at this year's Twangfest, and while last night's performance didn't quite match up (the lack of a dedicated horn section may be the culprit), it was far from a letdown. Brooks has the preening charisma that is needed to lead a group of James Brown and Motown devotees; without a solid singer like Brooks, these songs become live-band karaoke.
Thankfully the Uptown Sound is smart enough to sprinkle in some pop-rock nuggets alongside well-worn soul moves; its cover of Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" was successful as always, and Brooks even dropped in a bit of Janelle Monae's "Tightrope" later on in the set. Brooks followed the Wilco number with a note-perfect reading of Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long." It's unclear if he realized that Redding's trumpet player Ben Cauley had been on that very same stage not 24 hours earlier as part of the Bo-Keys, but it created a nice thread throughout the two-night event. The band's originals hold up well alongside the cover versions; one new track had the nervous disco-funk energy of early Talking Heads, while "To Love Someone (Who Don't Love You)" could be mistaken for a lost Al Green session.
Detroit's the Sights were the wild card in last night's set, jumping from genre to genre without ever settling on one distinct style. Singer and guitarist Eddie Baranek can move from Southern boogie to boisterous garage rock and on to the subtlest traces of classic rock. There was a moment when it seemed that the band was going to pay tribute to fellow Motor City legend Ted Nugent's deathless "Stranglehold," but it did not come to pass. Bassist Dave Lawson took the mic for the loping country number "I Left My Muse," though by the time the band got to the end of the set, it had touched on glam-rock, Detroit soul and a little bit of barbed-wire blues. It was a solid performance, but one got the sense that the Sights are a jack of all trades and a master of none.
The 6:30 p.m. start time meant that I missed the first set by locals the Nevermores, but I was thrilled to see the return of Mondo Topless to St. Louis. Unlike the Sights, the Philadelphia quartet just plays one song over and over again, but they play the hell out of it. Sam Steinig leads the group with broken-glass vocals and a mastery of the Vox Continental combo organ, the same keyboard that powered the Animals, the Doors and the Attractions. The reedy, cheesy sound of the organ provides the base for these quick-and-dirty songs, leaving room for guitarist Kris Alutis to get fuzzy on his Telecaster.
The organizers of Beat 'n' Soul did an outstanding job of lining up talent for this festival; stylistically, they had all the bases covered, and the event ran smoothly in its first year. The trick, however, is how to get people through the door: The only time that the club seemed more than half-full last night was during the Uptown Sound's set. Hopefully the event can continue to grow and become a destination for garage-rock and soul-revival lovers - the first year was too good to let this be a one-and-done scenario.