Black Alley, which headlines Friday’s Neo-Soul Night at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, has a lot of soul in its sound, but it’s more accurate to call the band’s style neo-go-go.
The Washington group began in 2007 as a straight-ahead go-go act, powered by two of that scene’s veterans: keyboardist Mack Tyson and percussionist Walter “Bo Beedy” Clark. But after adding gospel singer Kacey Williams and rock guitarist Eric Champaloux, the band went in an entirely new direction, distinguishing itself in the crowded go-go field.
By the time Black Alley released its first album in 2012, “Soul Swagger Rock Sneakers,” the band had crafted its own sound by layering soul vocals and rock instrumentation over its go-go foundation, a fusion reflected in the album title. There’s go-go in the repeating chants and Latin percussion breaks of the track “Heavy Hitters,” but also classic soul crooning on “Artist’s Prayer” and crunching rock on “Used.”
“When people come to see us, they expect to hear go-go all the time,” Williams says. “But when they hear the rock and soul elements that they didn’t expect, that can bring them to a new place. It reminds me of when Tina Turner started making those rock records. A lot of my peers were surprised by how much they liked it. I said, ‘You know that’s rock music, don’t you?’ and they were like, ‘That’s rock music?’ It wasn’t cool to be into rock, compared to hip-hop, but it’s no secret that music can bring people together.
“When you get different kinds of people together in a room to listen to music, they’ll start grooving and things become less stressful.”
Black Alley has come up with a couple of catchphrases to describe its distinctive sound: “soul garage” and “hood rock.” The labels imply that both the underground energy of garage rock and the technological grandeur of arena rock can be successfully adopted to inner-city go-go and soul. The band’s still-untitled new album, due out by the end of the year, will be focused more on “hood rock,” Williams says, with rock guitarist Anthony Nelson replacing Champaloux.
Williams, 30, began singing at age 4 in St. Matthew’s Baptist Church, then in Southeast Washington and now in Fort Washington. It was there that she learned to lose her self-consciousness as she poured her feelings into the old hymns. Those lessons proved invaluable when Williams began singing go-go, R&B and rock. On “Soul Swagger,” she was unafraid to tackle such taboo subjects as the seduction of young girls (“Virgin Suicide”), loveless sex (“So Much . . . ”) and sexually aggressive women (“Bad Girl”).
“When you sing harmony or lead in a choir,” she says, “you’re forced to make sure that the emotion is behind what you’re singing, that you’re ministering to the listeners and you’re free to express yourself, not being afraid to let anyone to see your pain, your joy or your triumph. People understand you’re there to express yourself and maybe help someone else. I’ve never experienced any kind of stage fright since then.”
Unlike many R&B and hip-hop acts, Black Alley is a self-contained band that plays all the instruments both onstage and in the studio. In addition to Williams, Tyson, Clark and Nelson, the band features bassist Josh Hartzog and drummer Danny “The Animal” Henderson, and all the instrumentalists have chops to complement Williams’s vocals.
“Sometimes people forget that you can create and make your own sounds,” she says. “Yes, assembling samples is an art, but there’s something more personal by inventing a sound on your own instrument. The thought process of figuring out how to get the idea in your head to come out through your instrument can make the result more individual.”
Black Alley is spearheading a movement of post-go-go acts in Washington — musicians who grew up on the sound pioneered by Chuck Brown but are giving it a new-generation twist. As examples, Williams cites singer Reesa Renee, the band Future and the two acts opening Neo-Soul Night at Carter Barron — Lysette Titi and Wes Fulton.
“Lysette’s voice is incredible,” Williams says. “It has so much range and movement, but it’s still clean and crisp. She sang with the Backyard Band, so people know her voice even if they don’t know her name.
“Every time Wes is onstage, I learn from him. Whenever you see or hear him, you definitely believe the message he’s singing. I hope people can see the same passion in me.”
Appearing with Lysette Titi and Wes Felton on Friday at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 4850 Colorado Ave. NW. 202-895-6000. www.nps.gov.
The show is free and tickets are not distributed in advance. Gates open at 7 p.m. to the first 3,700 people and the show starts at 7:30. For more information, visit our site or call 202-334-6808 or 202-895-6000. There are no rain dates. Picnic areas are available in the park surrounding the amphitheatre.