It was in this unpromising setting last year -- 11 o'clock on a Saturday morning -- that I witnessed one of the best acts I've seen in four years of covering the Austin City Limits Music Festival. The Jones Family Singers, a Pentecostal family group from Bay City (don't call them the Bay City Holy Rollers), opened their set in front of maybe 50 people with a 20-minute call-and-response workout called "I Am" that gave me chills in the muggy 95-degree heat. "We're gonna rock," sang out galvanic lead singer Alexis Jones Roberts. She and her four sisters were all dressed in lime-green shirts and jean skirts. "We're gonna roll, with Jesus!" she sang, leaning forward, the sisters stirring their fists in a circular motion, "I Am! I Am! I Am!" When the amazingly powerful and playful set was over, I was ready to go home. Coldplay just wasn't going to cut it after that.
Five sisters, their brother, their father, a husband and a grandson have never brought it as fiercely as the Jones Family Singers, who've been playing the churches and conventions that ensure obscurity for almost 20 years. They practice every Wednesday for nearly four hours; the strict, no-excuses sessions have inspired the kids to refer to family patriarch Fred A. Jones (himself a house-wrecking singer) as "Joe Jackson" after the J5's drill instructor.
I had become obsessed with old black gospel music in recent years, convinced that the bottomless soul fire of Mahalia, Rosetta and Bessie and the faultless lead/harmony interplay of the great quartets is as good as music can possibly get. But I thought I was too late to experience the glory of gospel's golden age live. Then I stumbled upon the Jones Family, who are like a Pentecostal Staples Singers, trading Pops' guitar for two more sisters.
Musically, there's something special going on here, but not on the group's records, where they try to read the minds of radio programmers and forget who they are. O Brother T-Bone, Where Art Thou?
In concert, this group, backed by Elder Jones's 13-year-old grandson Ian Wade on drums, son Fred Jones Jr. on guitar and Stephone Roberts on bass, never fails to amaze. "It was a spectacular performance I think I'll always remember," wrote Raleigh, North Carolina, critic David Menconi of the Jones Family's set at SXSW last month. That didn't read the least bit hyperbolic to me.