You know that scene in ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ where Tita, outraged that her boyfriend is marrying her sister, cries into their wedding cake mixture and everyone who eats the cake is consumed by longing and heartache? On Saturday I was making scones, trying not to think about the gig I went to on Friday night in case my dear friends came down with a nasty case of post-afternoon tea disillusionment. The true source of my disillusionment was probably sleep deprivation but instead I’ll blame it squarely on Aloe Blacc. Aloe Blacc is an African-American soul singer who may or may not be a soul gizmo manufactured by Apple.
The Aloe Blacc TM – birth name Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins – grew up as the only black in the village in Laguna Hills, Orange County. Blacc is touring on the strength of his single ‘I need a dollar’. Blacc penned this song in the wake of the credit crunch, when he was laid off from his job as a management consultant at Ernst & Young. The song was then picked up as the theme tune to the HBO series ‘How to Make It in America.’ If Blacc needed a dollar, the song has sure made him one. His album ‘Good Things’ has attracted positive reviews from everyone from Pitchfork to NME so I was starting to wonder whether my friend M. and I were the only ones in the world who found Blacc’s soul music too white for words. Then I stumbled across this review in The Guardian written by Dave Simpson. ‘Faced with the chance to become the voice of a generation, Blacc seems to have opted instead to be a singing Butlins redcoat’. Ouch!
I don’t know what was more disillusioning – Aloe Blacc’s ‘soul’ music or the audience who bought it wholesale. When, at the beginning of the show, Blacc referenced Al Green, Bill Withers, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder, rather than call out ‘For shame!’ the youngsters cheered. They understand that these are great names in soul music. What they don’t seem to understand is that the person who’s referencing these great names hasn’t earned the right. His musicians looked like they’d be more excited about working at the municipal library.
Aloe Blacc, I don’t understand why the world needs a slow cover of ‘Billie Jean’ or a soul version of ‘Femme Fatale’. They are great songs. They are done. I didn’t understand why you would turn up to your soul gig dressed like a geography teacher. I didn’t warm to your cheesy suburban church patter (‘See that stranger standing next to you? Go up and say hello.’) I almost had to stuff my fist into my mouth to stop myself from heckling. I haven’t felt so frustrated at a gig since Femi Kuti delivered a long and boring rant about Haiti and the World Bank. Call me old-fashioned but I think that if you want to make speeches, become a politician and hire a speech writer – that’s what Obama did. If you’re a soul musician, play us some music and show us some goddamn soul.
In contrast to the Aloe Blacc gig was the first time I saw Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings at the Gershwin Room of The Espy. Like Aloe Blacc, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings draw upon 60s and 70s sounds. There the similarities end. The venue was so packed that I didn’t think I’d ever get back from the bar, so I spent the gig drink-less but couldn’t stop dancing. There was a possibility that I would die but I didn’t much care. Sharon Jones emits enough energy to power a small city and I was plugged in to the force. Ms Jones grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, then New York. While trying to make it as a musician, she worked as a corrections officer at Rikers Island Prison and as a security guard. She’s only about five feet tall but you get the sense that she could hold her own against Stringer Bell. When Sharon Jones was in her 40s, her singing career started to take off with the Dap Kings. She’s now fifty-something but as this footage from the Golden Plains Festival shows, she could really show Aloe Blacc a thing or two about soul and about performance: