In his dreams — where cost is no object, where making music is still a viable profession — Paul Niehaus IV would love to turn his Blue Lotus imprint into an honest-to-God record label in the old-school tradition. He could keep a house band on the clock to back up the label's roster; he could devote time and resources to artist development; he could take the operation from his well-appointed south-city basement to a full-fledged studio.
But in 2020, where low- or no-cost streaming has become the listener's apparent birthright, running a label looks a lot more like an act of passionate zealotry. While Blue Lotus puts out its fair share of original releases from the likes of soul singers Roland Johnson and Gene Jackson, this weekend the label will host a tribute to Stax Records, a multi-singer tribute to the Memphis-based label that brought us deathless hits by Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and more.
Niehaus admits that paying tribute to the label's forebears is fun for the artists as well as good for the label's profile, and he hopes that showgoers this weekend will seek out the artists' own material.
"Man, it's art versus commerce," Niehaus says from behind the mixing desk of his basement studio. "People like something that's familiar, I think. It's something I think about a lot. That informs me a lot as an artist, to make something that is both familiar and new."
The label has paid tribute to Stax in the past, as well as Motown and Chess Records. Niehaus notes that they tend to be successful shows that bring out a new audience, and the revue style of the concert gives each singer a few songs to put their stamp upon. "We get a chance to feature a ton of different artists out front, backed up by a house band," he says.
For this week's show, the Stax songbook will be interpreted by a handful of local singers: Johnson, who has become Blue Lotus' de facto marquee name, will be there. He and Gene Jackson will pay tribute to Sam & Dave, as well as perform solo sets. But it's a few of the lesser-known names Niehaus is excited about: Tru Born, a guitarist and introspective singer-songwriter, will tackle the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself." Ms. Hy-C, who leads the soul-blues sextet Fresh Start, will handle another Staple classic, "I'll Take You There," and Brother Jefferson will interpret some of Albert King's Stax sides.
In keeping with the label's tradition — where a house band would back up the singers on the roster — Niehaus has assembled his own wrecking crew: Niehaus will be on keyboards, along with guitarist Bob Kamoske, bassist Gus Thornton and Kevin O'Connor on drums. A two-piece horn section will support the singers as well.
Many of those players have worked with Niehaus in the past; O'Connor wrote and arranged many of the tracks on Roland Johnson's latest, Set Your Mind Free, and Blue Lotus released the last solo album by slide guitar virtuoso Kamoske.
"If you can build a community of talented, inspired people, the sum is greater than the total of the parts," Niehaus says.
Even though singers like Jackson and Johnson have been performing almost as long as Niehaus has been alive, the partnership between singer and producer demands some tutelage and collaboration.
"Roland likes to say, in conversation and interviews, 'Oh yeah, I just come in and it's one take.' It's not; it's, like, 30 takes maybe, in truth," Niehaus says. More than any other element, he focuses on getting the best vocal performance to stand at the center of these recordings. When it's a lyric and a melody, you're really trying to get the best take, because all the instruments and parts are cool, but at the end of the day that's the most important thing.
"At the end of the day, the song is still the unit of measurement: How good is the song?" he continues. "How good is the lyric, how good is the harmony? When you press play, that's the judge."
This weekend's Stax tribute is a relative blip in what Niehaus has planned for 2020: The label will release albums by Miss Molly Simms and Jon Bonham, as well as an EP of sun-stroked psych-folk by David & the Same Mistakes, a winsome project from relative newcomer David Meyer. As a musician, Niehaus plays with Bonham, Simms, Falling Fences and others; he also has plans to release his own singer-songwriter material, though the pace he keeps as label head, studio owner and sideman often keeps that pushed to the back burner.
Niehaus sees his role, and that of Blue Lotus, as part of a larger continuum of American music. Some projects like the Stax show pay direct tribute to the past; others use what he calls "archetypes of music" to expand on the established forms.
"There's only twelve notes in music; there are only 26 letters in the alphabet," he says. "So it's not like you're gonna do something that is completely new. I think a lot about what is new and novel and what is timeless and traditional."