Of his his latest album, Under the Savage Sky, 60-year-old garage-rocker Barrence Whitfield says it was meant to give “the kids a musical karate chop to the head.” Released in early 2015 on Bloodshot Records, the album has surpassed all expectations and outdone its excellent predecessor, 2013's Dig Thy Savage Soul, and given Whitfield a huge boost in visibility. According to Whitfield, 2015 was a banner year for him and the Savages.
“We had such a blast cutting the last album,” says Whitfield while walking in his hometown, Boston. “When we took it in, the Bloodshot people were all ‘oh, my, look what we have here.’ And they pulled out all the stops as far as radio promotion and the album just took on a life of its own. Little Steven just played the album to death last year, he’s always programming a track from it. Exposure like that seems to just lead to more exposure.”
The success of the album translated into a busy year that saw the band spending major chunks of time on the road.
“We did part of the big Sonics tour last year as openers, and that was mind-blowing. I have so much respect for those guys,” Whitfield gushes. “What a long, stellar career and they still keep it real every night on the road. It’s very inspiring to someone like me who is just a rock and roller at heart.”
The band toured with the Sonics in April and May, then undertook a U.S. tour that consumed August and September, then they headed to Europe, where the Savages have been revered for years.
“Around 1985, our manager at the time got a call from a British DJ named Andy Kershaw," recounts Whitfield. [Note: Kershaw is one of the most popular and influential DJs in the British rock scene.] "He got our first record [Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, 1984] via a guy in Billy Bragg’s band and he just flipped over it. He actually got the crew from the British rock-music show The Old Grey Whistle Test to come to the States and film us, and that helped jump-start us in Europe.
“Late last year we did seven and a half weeks in Europe with only three nights off and it was insane," he continues. "The Spain portion of the tour was especially ridiculous. We sold out every show in Spain, and lots of nights there were so many people outside wanting autographs and stuff that we literally could not get into the venue. It was crazy cool.”
Not bad for a 60-year-old former Emerson College journalism student who says he “never thought I’d be saying I’m glad I went into rock and roll instead of journalism now that I look back.”
“That first record hit and I never finished my degree,” Whitfield explains, “but looking at what journalism pays these days, I probably just made the right lucky random decision.”
After over a decade of hard touring and recording, the Savages went on hiatus in 1995 and Whitfield took on projects that took him outside the confines of rock and roll. In 1997 he began working with a local jump-blues band called the Movers, and he contributed tracks to tribute albums for Merle Haggard and Don Covay. Then he surprised his fans with two albums of folk and country music in collaboration with Tom Russell.
“Man, I grew up digging all the country greats, Hank Williams, George Jones, Merle, Willie, all that great, soulful country stuff, and I always wanted to do that but we were so busy those first ten years I couldn’t do anything until we had cooled off a bit. I’ve known Tom Russell since the late Eighties, my manager was a friend of his. So we cooked up this scheme and somehow we got a record deal with East Side Digital."
Hillbilly Voodoo (1993) and Cowboy Mambo (1994) weren’t exactly country. Both highly satisfying albums contained a sprinkling of Russell originals and a wide-ranging mix of tasty covers including Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose,” Steve Earle’s “Devil’s Right Hand,” Louis Jordan’s “You Can’t Get That Stuff No More,” and Lucinda Williams’ “Just Wanted to See You So Bad.”
“Those records hold a very special place for me because they took me to a different latitude than the one I‘d been in for a decade,” Whitfield explains. “It’s even more satisfying to look back on those records now that Hillbilly Voodoo and Cowboy Mambo have been reissued.”
After over a decade of doing other things, the Savages reassembled in 2010 to play a few shows and record a fresh album for Spanish label Munster Records, which led to renewed interest in the band, especially in Europe. After releasing Dig Thy Savage Soul on Bloodshot in 2013, Jools Holland came calling and suddenly the Savages were a big deal in Europe for a second time.
The latest record is “a return to our most primitive,” according to Whitfield. Titles “Incarceration Casserole,” “The Claw,” and “Rock 'n' Roll Baby” are rock and roll 101, made all the more greasy and salacious by sax man Tom Quartulli.
“Our bassist Phil Lenker is an outstanding rock and roll writer and he’s a big part of Under the Savage Sky,” says Whitfield. “He, Peter [Greenwood], and I go way back, and it’s great to be working together this far along in our careers.”
Houston looms large in Savages history. Whitfield notes that longtime music scene mavens Pete and Pat Selen used to book him regularly at the Club Hey Hey on Washington, across from Rockefeller’s.
“Pete and [Pat] were always extending a hand to us and it still means a lot to me,” says Whitfield. “One of my biggest surprises came via Pete and [Pat]. They had a party one night at the Hey Hey and I look up and there’s Rudy Tomjanovich smiling at me. I got to meet him and we talked. He was actually kind of concerned about how he would do as a head coach, and I just told him he was going to be great at it. It was a special moment I’ll never forget.”
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The next big thing for the band will be another tour this year with garage legends the Sonics.
“The two bands are such a good match,” says Whitfield. “It would be hard to imagine us having fans who aren’t also fans of the Sonics. This has been so gratifying to see our thing build back up the way it has, and to be able to tour with guys who are literally our idols is just an amazing good feeling.
"We’ve been very, very fortunate," he adds. "Right now I think people are craving something real and legitimate, something raw, something not so dolled up and overthought as a lot of music is these days. We may be old rockers, but we still have that young blood in our veins.”
Barrence Whitfield and the Savages perform at 8 p.m. tonight at Under the Volcano, 2349 Bissonnet.