Lee Fields & the Expressions Continental Club April 27, 2010
A very few singers who missed out on being Al Green and Otis Redding when soul music first got big in the '60s and early '70s, people like Charles Bradley and Bettye LaVette, have been lucky enough to enjoy good second-act careers later in life. They're packing clubs instead of theaters or arenas, but they can still sang.
Lee Fields can still sang, too. Fields came up with a few singles in the early '70s that hit the funky side of soul and in fact earned him the nickname "Little J.B." for his resemblance to James Brown. He spent the '80s and '90s recording for Southern labels like Ace before latching onto the Brooklyn-based Truth & Soul Records late in the last decade.
Some eager young college student could probably write a thesis about "hipster soul," the great reawakening of interest in vintage R&B among younger, mostly white people. These people have turned their backs on contemporary pop music (at least in part) and both embraced artists like Fields and started DJ nights such as Houston's A Fistful of Soul, whose DJs were spinning Friday night between Fields and Houston openers Nick Gaitan & the Umbrella Man.
The cultural, racial and generational dynamics of such a situation are complicated, of course. But what Fields's hour and change onstage at the Continental Friday showed more than anything else is that people of all ages and colors do like to get down, and that a good hour of singing and dancing can make some people pretty horny. (More on that later.)
The show began with a warmup by Truth & Soul house band the Expressions, dominated by the two-man horn section and thickly layered with organ, bass and guitar. It was very soundtrack-y; oddly enough, almost exactly like the music in the movie I had just been watching upstairs, The Liberation of L.B. Jones.
That 1970 William Wyler film is about a well-to-do black undertaker in a small Tennessee town whose wife leaves him for a white police officer. Things get even worse after that, and the marital discord and brooding racial tensions are reflected in Elmer Bernstein's score.
There was some of that kind of drama in Fields's music. "Could Have Been," a 45 bundled into Daptone Records' 2009 compilation Daptone Gold, sounded like it hurt. Bad. Much later, with the Expressions pumping away behind him, the muted watercolor chords of "Honey Dove" rose to a climax along the lines of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness."
Fields is a powerhouse vocalist with a high tenor and a dash of grit in his voice, who at 61 could still give Percy Sledge and Redding in their prime a run for their money. Within two or three songs of going onstage Friday, Fields had stripped off his coat and sweat beads were glistening on his forehead. He doesn't do irony.
His new Truth & Soul disc is called Faithful Man, so there were many welcomes to the ladies in the house, many invitations for the audience to enjoy themselves. Fields and the Expressions didn't make it very difficult for us at all.
His footwork on the faster, staccato "Money I$ King" justified his old nickname "Little J.B." all by itself. During the title song of Faithful Man, he ripped off a scream that was so ferocious and effortless I underlined it in my notebook. It also made an excellent underscore to the sales pitch Fields gave Faithful Man right after that.
Across town, of course, the Rev. Al Green was testifying in front of (I'm guessing) a couple of thousand more people at the Arena Theatre. But if I didn't know better -- and I almost didn't -- I'd swear it was Green onstage at the Continental Friday. I can't think of a better compliment to pay either man.
Personal Bias: I had never heard of Lee Fields before Tomas from Sig's Lagoon mentioned he was coming a few weeks ago. He seemed excited. When I finally did some research on Fields last week, I understood why.
The Crowd: Not all hipsters and local musicians -- a fair amount of middle-aged black people were sprinkled in. But mostly hipsters and local musicians, enough to almost fill up the club.
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Overheard in the Crowd: Not much talk, but after Fields was finished a young couple (no more than 21 or 22) in front of the stage took the opportunity to commence mugging down right there, for several minutes. Actually, they could have been at it for several minutes by the time someone pointed them out to me. Some time later, they were still going at it, this time in front of the women's restroom.
Random Notebook Dump: Someone told me the bass player Friday was part of the studio crew the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach assembled for Dr. John's new album Locked Down. It makes sense; all of the Expressions are total pros.