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Friday, Oct. 5, 2007
Poster boys for Soulsville USA
By WAYNE GABEL
Special to The Japan Times
Call it coincidence, or call it destiny. Either way, Soulive are breathing new life into soul music — and a long-dormant soul label.
The New York-based quartet, whose upcoming Japan tour starts next week, are the first act to release an album on the recently revived Stax Records, the record company that defined the Memphis soul sound in the 1960s and early '70s.
Though Soulive are being called "torchbearers" of some kind of soul revival, drummer Alan Evans takes the hype in stride. He dealt with it earlier when his band was signed to seminal jazz label Blue Note.
"It doesn't hit you until you're mentioned in the same paragraph with (Blue Note artists) Freddy Hubbard and Jimmy Smith. That's pretty crazy," he says by phone from his Massachusetts home. "And now there's the Stax thing."
Founded in 1957 as Satellite Records and renamed Stax in 1961, the label and its Volt subsidiary were home to stars such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. & the MGs and Isaac Hayes.
Last December, it was announced Stax would be relaunched to commemorate the label's 50th anniversary this year. Soulive join Hayes and singer Angie Stone on the current Stax roster.
The band's "No Place Like Soul," released in Japan in June, signals the rebirth not only of a label but of a band. Previously known for their primarily instrumental style, Evans; his brother Neal, the group's keyboardist; and guitarist Eric Krasno have adopted a vocal-based sound. The album, their first with singer Paul "Toussaint" Barrett, completes a transformation that was hinted at on 2005's "Breakout."
Evans says the need for change was clear when the original trio convened to record some new tunes and found that none of them had brought along material to work with. In their solo projects, the three had turned their attention to vocal music. And, to their surprise, what they'd been writing independently of the band was remarkably similar.
"Obviously, we all wanted to go in that direction," Evans says. "We could either write and record instrumental tunes that we weren't really keen on or we could follow that path we were all on already."
Evans is realistic about the prospect of a return to the soul sound of Memphis and Stax, the label dubbed Soulsville USA.
"The Stax thing was just such an incredible moment in time. It's foolish to think that that's going to be re-created," Evans says. "It was more than just music. There were so many things going on in the world that influenced those guys and that they in turn influenced."
Stax, which rose to prominence during a period of great societal tumult in the United States, was significant because it was a racially integrated record company in a segregated southern city. Though typically associated with African-American artists, some of soul's key players are white, such as the MGs guitarist Steve Cropper. Evans finds it best to be colorblind when it comes to music.
"Soul music isn't a black thing or whatever. It's just a way. Paul McCartney — a really soulful cat. Bob Dylan — soulful cat. Johnny Cash . . ." he says, citing musicians usually filed under other genres.
Despite their name, Soulive are often deemed a jam band or a jazz act. Evans says their fan base in Japan grew enormously after they were highlighted in the jazz installment of a four-part NHK series devoted to popular music. A visit to a major Tokyo CD retailer during their first Japan tour gave them a taste of Beatlemania.
"We walk in, and there are larger-than-life-size posters and cut-outs of us. All of a sudden, people are coming up to us, taking photos and asking for autographs," he recalls.
Appropriately for a band now on the label that boasted socially conscious artists such as The Staple Singers, Soulive don't shy from weighty issues. The track "Mary," on "No Place Like Soul," addresses the consequences of music's glamorization of the thug life.
"It's the wannabes — the cats who really take things that they see and hear literally — those are the dudes that you have to be scared of," Evans says of the violence plaguing his hometown of Buffalo, New York and other American cities.
"It's a harsh message delivered in a sweet package, which I've always thought is one of the best ways to really get people's attention. Grab them with nice melodies."
Soulive play Oct. 9 (with guest Bettye LaVette) and 10 at Shibuya Club Quattro, (tel.  3444-6751); Oct. 11, Nagoya Club Quattro ( 264-8211); Oct. 12, Shinsaibashi Club Quattro ( 6535-5569). All shows start 7 p.m. Tickets are ¥6,500 in advance.