The Suffers featuring the Houston Symphony
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
June 17, 2017
Now that The Suffers are back home in Texas, things had to get bigger. For Saturday's homecoming show at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, Houston's finest Gulf Coast soul band brought along more than 80 of their newfound friends from the Houston Symphony.
The collaboration has been a long time coming; the symphony had had its eye on The Suffers ever since lead singer Kam Franklin performed as a guest vocalist for classical soul programming in 2014. "It's part of our core value to showcase Houston talent," said Vanessa Astros, senior director of communications at the Houston Symphony. "We at the symphony are big fans of soul music, so this was a natural fit."
Indeed it was. From the first brassy wails in "Stay" to the lovelorn, swooning finale of "Giver," the fusion of Houston Symphony and The Suffers made for a full-bodied sonic experience. Carefully arranged and artfully crafted, the performance reinvigorated songs that local fans have heard hundreds of times. A titter of woodwinds opened up "Peanuts," giving way to a delicate interjection of xylophone. The chorus of "Slow It Down" crescendoed with strings while the band meandered through the song's groovy '70s beat. As the robust sounds reverberated off the Pavilion's expansive white tent, people in the crowd made their way to the stage, drawn in by the magnetism of the music.
The ability to hook a crowd should come as no surprise to diehard Suffers fans. From the moment the band emerged on the Pavilion stage, howling with their arms raised overhead (much to the alarm of the nearby violinists), the band warmed the audience with its easy charm. Franklin invited listeners to dance along as they performed, opening up a small pit at the foot of the stage. Even with the full musical weight of the symphony behind them, The Suffers still play with casual intimacy, as if they're back on a cramped stage at the Continental Club.
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This is not to say that The Suffers have not evolved since the February 2016 release of their first album — far from it. The Saturday performance showed just how much the band has matured, from sound and songwriting to stage presence. In particular, trumpeter Jon Durbin and percussionist Chapy Luna demonstrated a level of musical precision that rivaled that of the symphony orchestra behind them. Further, the new song "Won't Be Here Tomorrow," written in collaboration with Zeke Listenbee, exemplified how The Suffers' new material has broadened in range and depth. Starting out with a generous, swelling introduction and moving into a brooding, easy beat, the song showcased Franklin's ability to belt out heartbreak with painful sincerity. By the end of the song, heavy with emotional burdens, Franklin's cathartic notes sent chills throughout the balmy summer evening.
It would be remiss not to talk about the band's progress without discussing the evolution of its leading lady. While Franklin has always been a vocal force to be reckoned with, her performance at the Pavilion unveiled a performer self-assured at the front of the stage. Her many mid-set asides — on hustling as an artist, on granting grace to those who deserve second chances, on valuing fathers who show up — showed the singer comfortable in her own skin and confident that her voice matters. Before singing a cover of the Alicia Keys hit "If I Ain't Got You," Franklin mused on naysayers who discouraged her from singing pop songs early in her career. "They don't do music anymore," she slyly quipped. With each sashay of her gold lamé skirt, with each scoot of her signature cowboy boots, Franklin commanded attention like a seasoned soul queen.
If the Houston Symphony collaboration is any indication, The Suffers' next album will be big and ambitious. "When we recorded the last album, we still had our day jobs and we recorded it very quickly," said bassist and co-founder Adam Castaneda in an email. "This go-around we are taking our time to make songs that mean a lot to us and, hopefully, reflect the experience we have gained since the last record." While we're glad to hear that The Suffers have time to let their music simmer, we hope their next recorded effort isn't too far down the road. And we also hope this recent performance gives the band a taste of their music's possibilities.