MORE THAN EVER, soul and R&B tend to be regional sounds, mostly popular in the same areas of the Deep South that gave rise to the styles in the '50s and '60s. You get the feeling that the American independent labels still recording soul and R&B artists do so as much out of love for these classic styles as for commercial reasons. OTIS CLAY -- "Soul Man: Live in Japan" (Rooster Blues R7609). Mississippi-born Otis Clay is a hard-edged and gritty soul belter who, despite only limited success in America, has recorded four albums in Japan where Memphis soul is quite the rage. This double live set is musically superb largely thanks to Clay's band, mostly the same Memphis musicians who backed Al Green's great soul hits. Although Clay is in fine voice, able to milk his lyrics with passion and sweat, the album definitely suffers from each of the 10 songs being dragged out interminably.
SOLOMON BURKE -- "A Change Is Gonna Come" (Rounder 2053). The surprise success of Burke's 1984 "Soul Alive," a live album recorded in Washington's, Phoenix I nightclub, proved there's still a substantial market for the kind of down-home sermonizing this one-time preacher and soul pioneer specializes in. The majesty of Burke's voice is well served by the material which, in the case of Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" and Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," tell emotional tales as dramatic and wrenching as Burke's delivery. The slow songs highlight the warmth and humor Burke can convey and, if only Burke's merely functional band were half as glorious as his singing, the results would be worthy of Cooke and Sledge.
IRMA THOMAS -- "The New Rules" (Rounder 2046). Rightfully known as "the soul queen of New Orleans," Irma Thomas has come up with a record that's grounded in the early '60s R&B sound of her classics, such as "Time Is On My Side," but also adds some more modern jazz and pop touches. As always, Thomas' warm, husky voice is particularly seductive on crying-style ballads like "Yours Until Tomorrow." She assuredly conveys a whole world of adult sexual and romantic emotions.
MARCIA BALL -- "Hot Tamale Baby" (Rounder 3095). At times, Marcia Ball reminds one of a young and sassy Irma Thomas. Ball, a veteran of the Texas and Louisiana roadhouse circuit, knocks out a set of Memphis soul, Texas R&B and Louisiana rock 'n' roll that sounds as though it's been earned the hard way. There's no doubt that Ball does justice to the traditions she's inherited, but because these sounds are so classic, they still keep her own considerable vocal and piano talents playing second fiddle to tradition.