At its best, soul music has always affirmed the joy of existence. This affirmation doesn't navely deny life's complexity, but instead acknowledges the difficult process of putting one foot in front of another. All of soul's great figures, from Sam Cooke to Mary J. Blige, have tread this line, and -- Wednesday night at the Barrymore Theatre -- Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings claimed their place in this tradition.
The Dap-Kings, who've gained recent fame through their backing of Amy Winehouse, have no better or more sympathetic frontwoman than Ms. Jones, a 4'11" powerhouse whose intense, gospel-influenced vocals are matched only by her boundless physical energy. When backing Jones, the eight-piece Dap-Kings call to mind the long history of great soul/funk bands who laid the musical foundations for the genre's legendary performers. Judging by the sizable, diverse crowd gathered at the Barrymore, their respective reputations are growing.
The Menahan Street Band opened, and -- although few in the crowd recognized them -- the casually dressed ensemble proved to be most of the Dap-Kings. Under this nom-de-soul-jazz, the musicians delivered a short burst of tight, grooving instrumentals, many featuring a significant undertone of boogaloo and other Latin sounds, punctuated by punchy horn and guitar riffs. (One of their songs, "Make The Road By Walking," was sampled by Jay-Z, who used its blasting bridge on his 1970s-influenced "Roc Boys.") For their last two songs, they were joined by Charles Bradley, a Brooklyn-based singer who bore a physical and vocal resemblance to James Brown.
After an intermission, The Dap-Kings -- now in suits -- returned to the stage, and guitarist/MC Binky Griptite welcomed the crowd (already in a mild state of euphoria) to Daptone Records' "super soul revue." After two warm-ups, Sharon Jones took the stage, launching into a 90-minute set that -- in nearly every important respect -- captured the energy and intensity of the great acts who Jones and the Dap-Kings clearly emulate.
While there's no doubt that the sounds and tone of their show is "retro," though, there is also no denying that Jones' talent transcends such limitations. She even laid down a blistering, gloriously un-ironic cover of Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done For Me Lately?"
Jones proved equally adept at blazing funk and deep ballads, and The Dap-Kings revealed that their rich, percolating arrangements transfer perfectly to a live setting. She reveled in the performance aspect of her craft, bringing various audience members (including Paul Cebar) up to dance with her, and imbuing the entire affair with a rich sense of history.
Jones also explained, and demonstrated, how both her African-American and Native American ancestors contributed to her unique dance style, and she (with Charles Bradley) delivered an impassioned version of "A Change Is Gonna Come," preceded by her honoring of Barack Obama. Throughout, Jones took the crowd to church and dance-floor with equal ease, mixing the spirit of salvation with the pleasure of sweet sin.
It was a masterful performance by all concerned, one that lived up to the Barrymore's early marketing of it as the show of the year. Judging by the audience's ecstatic reaction, I can imagine that Jones and the Dap-Kings might soon return. If they do, it's not in anyone's best interest to miss it. Can I get a witness?