Sharon Jones, at the Height of Her Powers

The diminutive soul diva was hard to see at times at the Black Cat, but she was always outta sight, man.
The diminutive soul diva was hard to see at times at the Black Cat, but she was always outta sight, man. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008

Soul-funk revivalists Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have released three acclaimed albums and a handful of superlative 45s (yes, the old-timey vinyl kind). Yet to fully appreciate the Brooklyn-based band's considerable artistic prowess, Jones and the Dap-Kings must be observed onstage, where their performances have become the stuff of sweaty dance-party legend.

But that's becoming increasingly difficult as their popularity grows. For one thing, their concert Thursday at the Black Cat was long sold out, with scalped tickets selling at stunning multiples of their $15 face value.

And those who managed to get into the club weren't guaranteed to see the greatness for themselves, either, because Jones is such a diminutive singer -- albeit a wholly dynamic one with a big voice and an outsize stage presence to match. Here, the funky diva's stature proved problematic to those who weren't pressed up against the stage (and who aren't tall enough to play power forward in the NBA), as Jones kept disappearing beneath the sightlines like a submerging R&B submarine.

Heard she was great, though!

A potent live performer, Jones sang -- for 80 minutes -- of love and heartbreak and independence and faith, all with a particular focus and ferocity. Her voice was emotive, expressive and explosive, with Aretha Franklin's inflections and Tina Turner's raw, early edge. (Or, if you prefer, Marva Whitney, straight up.)

The Dap-Kings were no slouches themselves: Eight men in dapper suits with skinny ties summoning James Brown's JBs and Booker T. & the MGs with R&B that stressed the blues and sinewy rhythms in equal amounts -- and dynamic funk that was hard, tight, fast and full of surprises (and horns!), with shifting tempos and sudden key changes.

The circa-1965 data points are apt because Jones and the Dap-Kings play modern vintage music: new material written and performed as though time has been standing still for four decades. The group even records on analog equipment, using vintage instruments. It was, the 51-year-old Jones explained onstage, "the soul that we had bottled up in us."

It has nothing to do with contemporary popular music. Except that it does: There's a modest modern retro-soul movement afoot, and the Dap-Kings are in the royal court, having accompanied Amy Winehouse on parts of her breakthrough recording, "Back to Black," and then during the troubled British singer's U.S. tour.

Winehouse has lapped Jones in album sales and media attention -- and perhaps rightly so, at least as it regards the recorded piece: "Back to Black's" pathology, humor, performances and production made the album one of 2007's best. Onstage, however, Jones is everything that the much younger Winehouse is not. Which is to say, engaged, engaging and full of fire.

Where Winehouse nervously goes through the motions, Jones swaggers and stomps through her songbook. And other people's, too: The set included an aching cover of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and a spellbinding take on Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done for Me Lately?," in which the 1986 original was pressed through a Muscle Shoals-style funk filter.

Mostly, though, there were originals, from the mid-tempo strut of "Be Easy" and the slashing "Tell Me" to the relentless funk workout "My Man Is a Mean Man" and the sensual, smoldering "Let Them Knock," on which Jones's voice sounded exceptionally rich and supple. During "100 Days, 100 Nights," her new album's title track, Jones sang over a jittery beat before the band broke into a loping half-time groove as Jones worked over the lyric. "Got to Be the Way It Is" was frenetic to the point of almost coming unhinged; but the athletic Dap-Kings never let go of the furious rhythm.

On "How Do I Let a Good Man Down?" the Dap-Kings playfully responded to Jones's titular lyric with a descending horn line. And then Jones got down to business. Literally: During the song, she crouched out of sight as she sang about letting her man loose. It was a fantastic vocal -- particularly when Jones started singing staccato.

As it turned out, seeing wasn't believing. Sharon Jones simply needed to be heard.

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