Sunday, August 05, 2007

I Got Soul

You may not have noticed it but—be very quiet—there’s a soul revolution goin’ on. It’s not making headlines—yet. Yeah, I know, there’s Amy Winehouse and—eek—Joss Stone. But that’s not it; they’re not there yet.

No, I’m talking about SOUL. The kind that makes you wanna get up and shout, the kind that lifts you up, that hits you in your stomach and your throat and your hips, the kind that that sends shivers down your spine and makes your feet move and your butt shake and your spirit soar. SOUL. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you experience it.

There are lots of cheap imitations out there, lots of wannabe Dreamgirls. But soul isn’t something you can manufacture—you either have it or you don’t. Otis Redding. Sam & Dave. Wilson Pickett. Aretha Franklin. Ryan Shaw.


No kidding, folks, this kid Ryan Shaw is the greatest raw talent I have ever seen. I’m not talking about polished professionalism; I’m talking about untapped ability, limitless possibility, star quality. This kid from Decatur, Georgia is the real deal. He came to New York to appear in a gospel musical a couple years ago and did some gigs on the side, including a regular slot at the Motown Café. He eventually settled in Brooklyn, and was soon recruited into Johnny Gale’s Fabulous Soul Shakers. The rest, they say, is history. His debut disc came out earlier this year and has received excellent reviews, and he just completed a major tour opening for the aforementioned Ms. Stone. But that’s not the whole story.

This kid is on his way somewhere, and he’s moving fast. Shaw made his debut headlining appearance at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan this past Monday, and more than lived up to the hype. Now, the Highline is not my idea of a warm friendly room. This place has the B.B. King’s money grab gouge going on from the minute you walk in the door. We’re talking they serve ice cream on a plate with garnishes, people. So it took some doing for Mr. Shaw to warm the place up, especially because the folks running the show made us wait close to an hour after a tepid opening set on acoustic guitar by Atlanta singer/songwriter Anthony David.

But this kid has balls. He walks onstage and opens the show with “A Change is Gonna Come.” It probably wasn’t the right Sam Cooke song—“Let the Good Times Roll” might’ve been a better choice—but you have to give the kid props for trying. He had me. And then he proceeded to knock the show out of the park. Shaw has style and power and charisma. He doesn’t just hit the notes; he feels them way down deep. He’s a gospel singer, and he sings the only way he knows how—with his soul.

The set was brief because he doesn’t have much material yet. The record, comprised of soul almost-weres and near misses like Bobby Womack’s “Lookin’ For a Love,” sounds like the great lost Stax record that’s missing from your collection. His originals sound like classics, and it’s hard to tell them apart. Interspersed with songs from This is Ryan Shaw (even the title is retro!) were several jaw dropping covers, including a gospelized “Let it Be” and, of all things, a sing-along to the folk standard “If I Had a Hammer.” Introducing it as a song he used to sing with his mom, Shaw performed it as a rousing testament to the power of love to change minds. And before you could pick yourself up off the floor from that, he was on to the dance portion of the program, “Mish Mash Soul,” calling the audience down front to join him. Closing the set a few minutes later with a rousing “Do the 45,” (which kind of sounds like “Shotgun” with different lyrics), he had everyone up and dancing again (I defy anyone to sit still when this man is onstage). And then he was done. It was short, sweet and to the point. It was energizing and joyous and deeply satisfying in a way you can’t get from rock’n’roll (well, except when said rock’n’roller performs soul shaking gospel-influenced material--that his fans hate…but I digress.) Nope, I love rock’n’roll as much as the next guy, perhaps a lot more, but this music is different. Soul gives you hope. It makes you see life’s possibilities, gives you the strength to go out and face the world. It’s not “head” music, it’s “heart” music. It’s muscle and power and nerve. And it’s uniquely, profoundly American.

Whew. It was 90 minutes of pure unadulterated joy. And the best part is, like all great soul music, it’s sensual without being dirty, it’s spirited but not obscene. It’s life affirming. It makes you feel like dancing and shaking your groove thing, like moving your hips and shouting to the rafters, “I am alive!” This kid Ryan Shaw has resurrected the true soul magic of yesteryear. He’s all about love and hope and positivity, a one-man self-help seminar—and it's all genuine. Midway through the show, he introduces one of his songs by prowling the lip of the stage proclaiming, “I want you to think about that heartbreak, that bad break, that bad job and scream ‘It’s OVER AND DONE!’” This would be cheesy in lesser hands, but it’s clear he believes so strongly, his faith is so deep and pure, that you are carried along with him, and so you shout “Over and done!” right along with him. And just like that, your pain is washed away, your frustration is exorcised.

The show was not perfect; Shaw needs to work on smoothing out the set list, developing his onstage persona, and most importantly, learning and/or writing new material. But his natural talent, his ability to silence a room, is something that you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t. So go see him now, before you have to pay $100 to sit in the back of Radio City or something. Cos this kid’s not stickin’ around the $10 rooms for long…

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