Warm. That's the impression that you get from Soulwork's recent live CD release, Soulwork squares off with the Supervillain. It ranges between scalding and lukewarm, but overall, it's a warm one. Good warm - warm like a hot toddy, or warm like your favorite old record on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Warm like that dusty Motown number that you nail on an unplanned trip down through the AM stations. "Soulwork," you say. "Hmmm… sounds familiar." Not to be confused with the (now) four-piece instrumental outfit, this is one of the New England region's promising new soul-groove bands.

Their rise into favor has been brisk. Conceived in 1999 by singer Sinclair Jennings Jr. (Skip to his friends), Ryan J. Harris (on the bass), and drummer Kevin Emerson, the band changed their name from RKDS to Soulwork with the addition of Jeff Blancato on guitar, and changed their homebase from western Mass to Boston. In 1999 the Hartford Advocate labeled them "Best Party Band." Last year after replacing Blancato with guitarist Gabe Johnson (of Jive Talkin' Robots fame) and adding keys player Josh Gold, the band was nominated for "Best Funk Band" at the prestigious Boston Music Awards. I had been catching little Soulwork ripples on my radar screen - bits of homage and the offhand prop- as they careened around New England, kicking up dust with their brand of "chicken shack beats and tight Motown stylings."

After receiving rave reviews on the band's live show from friends who had seen them, and a bunch of the witty, pithy newsgroup emails that Skip pens to keep the Soulfamily up to speed, I realized that I was probably missing out on a good thing. So I rolled on over to Harper's Ferry to check them out.

Now I understand what the fuss is about. This is a solid outfit that knows how to put on a show. The performance (for that's what it is, when you get right down to it) started smooth and mellow, but it was early, don't ya know. Meaning, they weren't dropping bottomless pits of driving funk that pushed you to the floor like a hammer. Not yet, at least. They played tasty soul, as the crowd swayed to the Al/Marvin vibe, and all was well. But then, tune by tune, the pace quickened. By the time the set break was supposed to happen (it didn't) the room was in a mild frenzy. Come nigh on the hour the encore was supposed to happen (it didn't) the stage was packed with gyrating women. My buddy Andy Williams, a good time junkie and veritable mirth-o-meter, perhaps best summed up the vibe, proclaiming "they're not afraid to go straight down and hold it."

I asked Josh Gold if that - all those girls giggin' among the instruments - was a usual spectacle. "Well, not always," he said. "It just depends on what Skip feels like doing." But the frenzy, well, I reckon that's not entirely uncommon. Front man and lead vox Sinclair Jennings Jr. (Skip to his friends) unleashes a warm flow of song and banter that gives the live shows - and live CD's - a distinct sense of participation. When he's not singing or teasing the tambo he's engaging the crowd, pulling them mercilessly closer to the groove. It's the family thing.

In addition to their fine originals, the night featured such tasty covers as Steely Dan's "The Fez", Prince's "Soft and Wet," and the Jackson's "PYT", the latter forcing some exquisite high-pitched harmonies from bassist and guitarist. While the CD is all about originals, it does capture the good-time vibes and range of emotion of the live show.

Within the supersaturation of groove-oriented bands, it is always a good idea to develop the component that sets your gig apart. Soulwork succeeds at this: they take hyper-funk and round the edges with a bit 'o the Detroit gospel, layering rich vocal melodies over tight, edgy musicianship. Skip's voice is the union of soul man and blues man: just as he's winding towards the top of a Motown falsetto, he drops down into a delta growl. Gabe Johnson trimmed his chops out in the psychedelia-infused Pacific Northwest, and can fly from the Shaft theme to super rip in a heartbeat. His sound is jazzfunk on a hit of homegrown and a scoop of whiskey; you find yourself closing your eyes and curling your lip at the same time. Josh Gold spent a good amount of time pumping ivory in the New Orleans circuit, and coaxes old school grooves from the Rhodes and Wurlitzer, often adding tripped-out little dervishes that have been likened to "Miami-Vice-like hot night sounds." Kevin Emerson is all over the place on his custom kit, but plays with a refined grace that thunders when necessary, and cruises fast and trebly always. Harris backs it all up with righteous bass abandon, playing off the keys beautifully. It's a mighty fine flavor, greens and gumbo with a jammy finish. Make no mistake: besides excellent Motor City crooning, these cats can tease a jam, whip it up, and send it spinning around the room. Onstage, energy and sound pours as if from a tap, flowing mightily at points, sputtering on occasion to change kegs, or take a breath, or dip into a little Stevie Wonder-worthy melodrama. But the varied cadence is refreshing, and somehow more informative.

Gray, the first tune on the album, (which was recorded at The Big Easy in Portland Maine on December 13th, 2001) starts it up on a hyperspace odyssey that dives into a funky rant with a lovely vocal refrain towards the end. Immediately you sense how well the vocals open up the texture of the music. The second tune, Knew is simply a great tune. It begins with a little drum intro and dub ramble, as bass and keys team up and sync out a soft, deep groove. Almost similar in mood to Marley's "Stir It Up", it struts up and down sunny steps but carries the distinct cry of old school Motown. Ordinary Day follows up like a soft rain, and there's a touch of Fagen. Everytime breaks off into a tear, and stays fully throttled with solo infusions on overdrive. And so it goes, driving and diving from heavy to heady. Slopbucket Fingers is a mostly instrumental tune, upon which Gold bangs out the baddest-assest keys jam you ever did hear. Light scatters off into a crunchy, superfast Rockabilly blues boogaloo that'd get even a preacher's wife flushed. Chocolate Chicken Gravy wraps up the show with a bang, all hopped-up on hippy heavy-metal riffs that sound like a cross between Hendrix, the Allman Bros, and Michael Jackson.

While they can turn on the power funk, it's in the R&B realms where I see Soulwork carving their niche and attaining their crowning glory. The ability of the band to merge improvisation and inspiration sets them apart. This stuff is soul with a side of grits. It occupies the space between ether and skillet, between hot and cool. Like I said, it's warm. Good warm.

J.R. Richards
JamBase | Boston

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[Published on: 3/19/02]

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