Review of the Daptone Records Super Soul Revue
Day One, Sydney Festival, January 5, 2013
Everyone loves a free event, and a free musical event in the Domain on a beautiful summer night in Sydney is always going to be popular. So I was pleasantly surprised on arrival at the Domain at about 6pm last night that the venue was not too crowded, perhaps because people were timing their arrival a bit later after a very warm day.
As a huge Dap-Kings and Daptone Records fan and a funk and soul enthusiast, I was excited about a rare opportunity to experience the genre live in Sydney. The Super Soul Revue program was well thought-out in terms of progression, beginning with the mellow grooves of The Sugarman 3 and Menahan Street Band, who both delivered downtempo sets with occasional flourishes of horns and guitar, and some lovely touches of organ, an instrument you rarely hear these days. Their smooth sounds provided a magical accompaniment to an equally enchanted Sydney twilight, floating across the city, fresh and crisp like the cooling south-easterly breeze.
Menahan then provided musical accompaniment to the soaring vocals of Charles Bradley, who was first recorded at 62 and sounds like James Brown with a strong dose of Al Green thrown in. I hadn’t heard of Bradley until yesterday but he was the talk of the town on radio, and last night I could see why, as he threw himself into every song. As Daptone co-founder Neal Sugarman explained on radio yesterday, Bradley is one of those performers who is able to make every member of the audience feel like he is singing directly to them. This guy has incredible energy and fantastic stage presence. Charles summed up the unifying ethos of funk (and the evening as a whole) beautifully during his set when he said it doesn’t matter what country you come from, because we’re all from the planet Earth. I’m really looking forward to listening to more of his music!
As the venue filled, the chilled-out vibe remained. People wandered about freely, enjoying the food stands and taking it all in. For many, the evening was as much about catching up with friends and enjoying a night out as it was about a musical experience. As the night progressed, I could see many faces reflecting the fact that they didn’t quite understand the language of funk and soul. This was no impediment to the enjoyment of the dedicated soul brothers and sisters, who filled the (far too small!) designated dance area around the stage, and began to strut their stuff as darkness fell.
(It was very annoying that, at this point, the security decided to start, in a very arbitrary fashion, restricting access to the front area. Note to the Sydney Festival: next time you organise an event like this, at which many people will want to dance and get close to the stage, perhaps allocating more than 10 per cent of the space to standing room would be a good idea. Symphony in the Domain, this isn’t.)
The funkier end of the evening began with The Budos Band, and the serious dancing began. When it comes to funk music that means really moving your hips and getting as low to the ground as possible. When the funksters really get moving, marveling at the spectacle is almost as fun as getting your own groove on, and there was some superb action on display, although unfortunately the scope for individual flamboyance melted away as the dance floor filled in the final hour. The Budos Band were the highlight of my night, laying down some serious percussive, instrumental funk with a strong psychedelic edge.
Everything was primed for a brilliant final hour with the headline act: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Unfortunately the moment was lost, primarily due to some terrible sound issues. I’m not sure exactly what went wrong, but Jones’ voice kept cutting out, many instruments were drowned out and there was a major problem with echo from the speakers positioned further out into the audience. Most around me didn’t seem to mind, but I must confess my interest waned and, aware that our kids would be up at the crack of dawn, we decided to make an early dash for the train station. A disappointing end to an otherwise fantastic evening was offset somewhat by the fact that I was lucky enough to see a cracking set by Jones and the Dap-Kings back in about 2006 during their Naturally tour.
Technical issues aside, this was a terrific night, striking the right note in terms of musical selection and also exposing thousands of people to genres deserving of more popular appreciation. Well done to the Sydney Festival organisers for putting it together, and making it a free event for thousands of Sydneysiders to enjoy.