The heyday of soul was arguably the '60s, with many of the genre's most popular artists in their prime, young and lithe, churning out not only great music, but also stellar live performances. Unfortunately, much of that was never documented in video form, as cameras were not commonplace in the dark speakeasies, ballrooms, and clubs.
For Houston native Peter Lucas, though, all is not lost. After a spell in Seattle, where he worked with the Seattle International Film Festival and the Experience Music Project, Lucas has returned home, where he now works for the Contemporary Arts Museum. And the avid film collector is brimming with excitement about his upcoming venture, "Soul Nite" at the Eldorado Ballroom in Third Ward.
In fact, "Soul Nite" is actually two nights, occupying the weekend of February 4th & 5th. Co-presented by the Aurora Picture Show and Project Row Houses, the events feature a wealth of live soul performances that Lucas has cobbled together over time. "For years now I've been doing these events in Houston, Austin, & Seattle," he says. "This is actually the third one in Houston. The last one was at the Eldorado Ballroom; we also did one at the Orange Show before that."
It's a project driven by a desire to see more than the tidbits of live footage found in documentaries. "That was the most interesting thing to me," says Lucas. "I always wanted to see more of [the performances]. So I started collecting these films & clips."
With "Soul Nite," Lucas wants to bring the magic of these live performances to an audience that often never got to see the artists in question. This isn't a theatre-like snooze-fest, either. "I started putting music programs together that were just assemblages of this stuff, tweaked to sound really good and look really good - and then I blast it," he declares with a grin.
For the program, Lucas has assembled what he calls an "all-star cast" of musicians. "They were most at home on stage. A lot of the footage that exists for television was lip-synced, and it's sort of terrible. Soul performers are horrible [at that], there's not the passion, the improvisation, the interaction with the crowd & their band. When you're stripped of that, it doesn't work so well; it's neat to see them, but it's not the real thing," he laments.
Lucas' stock consists entirely of live footage, presented in a bustling viewing atmosphere to boot. "It's not this 'hush, be quiet & watch the movie!' thing," he stresses. "You can go to the bar, dance, sit down, get up, clap and sing, whatever. Everyone is encouraged to do that. There's a really cool energy. The Eldorado Ballroom is really the perfect place for this - a lot of the performers that I'm showing have actually performed in that space, on that stage."
Lucas is reluctant to disclose too many details about the lineup: "I don't like to give away too much, because part of the fun is to show up and be surprised." In our chat, though, he noted that each night will have a bit of a twist to it. Friday night will focus on the mid-1960s soul, with some Otis Redding, James Brown and Ray Charles. Also amongst the lineup, though, are artists that are lesser-known, including many with origins or ties to Texas like Barbara Lynn, Joe Tex and Freddy King. On Saturday he'll follow soul into the early '70s.
"1968 was kind of a big turning point for soul music - that's when Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sly & The Family Stone, they all got more involved in terms of writing their own material, and really presenting whole albums, as opposed to singles. There's a really interesting change."
Lucas will be a man of many hats come the weekend, declaring himself at once a film curator, DJ and host. The connection formed with the crowd is clearly special to him, and he brims with joy when he talks about sharing the footage with an audience. "Most people that I've talked to that come to the "Soul Nite" programs have thanked me because they've heard music by this or that artist, but they never saw them," he says. "They don't even know what they looked like; they never saw them move, do a little dance thing, or the theatrics of their performance."
Within the fray of the live performances, the fact that these are young artists giving it their all really shines through. "You see little tricks, these amazing things that Joe Tex would do, throwing his microphone around, or these little steps that James Brown would do, or Barbara Lynn playing left-handed guitar. It's those details that you just can't get on the record," says Lucas. "They did songs you know, but a little bit faster, a little harder, and with a little more bass," he explains, "and we really crank them. It's really kind of the closest that you can come to experiencing the real deal. I only put in the stuff that blows my mind."
Soul Nite at The Eldorado Ballroom Friday, February 4th and Saturday, February 5th $10, or free for Aurora members.