Some nights just have a great vibe to them. It seems like just the other day I was slugging through a blizzard to the Turf Club. But I know a week in Austin at SXSW has intervened. No blizzard Saturday night for St Paul & The Broken Bones at the sold out Palace Theater. Just a gorgeous spring evening. And sunshine still going strong when I walked in the doors. How cool is that? Those happy vibes seemed to permeate the crowd. A great night of music coupled with a loosening of winter’s grip make for a happy combination.
The evening opened with Maryland dream pop artist Michael Nau along with bass player Cotton Jones. Their sound was filled by drum tracks. The set from the Maryland singer/songwriter was gentle pleasure; a nice contrast to the huge dynamics of the headliner. I think the objective of the band is to help you chill and to drift. During their 45 minute set I was a bit preoccupied moving around, visiting with friends and getting situated. The music that kept us all warm and happy.
I was not prepared for how powerful the band was in a live setting. Nor was I expecting a voice quite as commanding and mesmerizing as that of front man Paul Janeway. There are few things I enjoy more than seeing a band for the first time and getting my socks knocked off. What a delight!
Janeway is one of those artists who seems a walking contradiction. Someone once described him as looking like that kid who won the 9th grade science fair. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. You might walk past him on the street as just another cog in a cubicle. But when the lights come up, this is a man who commands the stage. Just like all those great R&B and soul icons. The moment he strode on stage, draped in a black sequined cape that would have made Elton John jealous, he held the crowd in the palm of his hand.
Opening with LivWithoutU, about two bars in he flipped to a crystal falsetto and wailed. The crowd literally jumped. Backed by this classic R&B 7 piece band, replete with horns, he ran the vocal gamut. At times powerful, emotive and strong. At times flashing bits of Al Green and Curtis Mayfield. My notes described Janeway within that first song as having a one in a million voice. It occurred to me he was like a male version of Amy Winehouse. We’ll all have to look long and hard to find another guy who can sing with him.
Obviously, I was the odd man out in this sold out crowd. The patrons were lock, loaded and ready. At the end of that opening number, Janeway gave a little dance shuffle and the place erupted. I shook my head; this was something akin to adoration. The Bones wasted little time in shifting into Flow With It.
All I Ever Wonder began with a brooding Dark Side of the Street feel before finally opening all the gates and letting the horses run. That band produces an enormous wall of sound which Janeway works on top of. There’s this tried and true adage that musicians serve the song. In other words, they need to stay beneath the singer or the melody line. In this band, everybody has the power to go full bore. They blew the walls out.
At times, the show felt like a Southern revival with an a manic preacher crying for an Amen! Maybe that should come as no surprise as Janeway trained as just that before changing directions and pursuing a different kind of soul. There was this distinct deep South feel to what the band was serving up. Where Nathaniel Rateliff reminded me more of the early 70’s sound of people like Van Morrison and merged a more rootsy base, St. Paul and The Broken Bones was pure Stax soul with rock energy. Close your eyes and there was Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett.
With a single exception, bass player Jesse Phillips, everyone in the band hails from the stretch that runs from Memphis down to Birmingham, AL. Within that 4 hour run lies The Crossroads in Clarksville, MS where Robert Johnson sold his soul. To Muscle Shoals, home of the legendary Swampers who backed everybody from The Stones to Aretha Franklin. Nashville is right around the corner. If there’s a corner of the US of A that knows more about testifyin’, sanctifyin’ and making music, I’d like to know it. St. Paul & The Broken Bones is not a band that’s trying to sound R&B. They are R&B. Born and bred.
My notes at one point mention Al Jareau as Janeway slid liquidly between registers. So stop for a second and consider the names I’d recalled for context before half a dozen songs had been delivered: Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Amy Winehouse, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett. Good golly, Miss Molly, that man can sing.
Midway through the night the band launched into Convex, which like most everything else was huge. I found myself wondering how long it would be before somebody from the Bond movie franchise would come calling. This was the kind of song that, quite frankly, was too damn big for the 1500 person Palace.
You can tell when a band is having a good time. Sometimes that happens simply because the place is full and fans are digging it. But something I truly admired about the band, and which was an indicator of how they get along, came twice during the evening. Janeway simply walked off stage and the band went into full blown jam mode. The fact of the matter is that if Paul Janeway is standing on the stage, he’s always going to be the focal point. So he left twice and let every member shine. Shine they did.
When the band returned for their three song encore, Janeway took the opportunity to chat with the audience. He mentioned that The Current was filming and gave props for all their help in the early years. He talked about how excited they were to be playing in St. Paul. “I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me and ask: ‘Are you from Minnesota? I say are you kidding? Does my accent sound like I’m from Minnesota’?”
However, there’s no doubt they feel an affinity. “We’ve had this date circled on our tour a long time. You guys sold it out a month in advance!” Janeway seemed genuinely moved when he announced. “We just got our First Avenue star. So this might be my last show. Because as a kid that was the biggest thing I ever dreamed of.”
After Sanctify and Call Me, Janeway introduced the band and mentioned he’d be out directly to meet us all and walked off the stage. Like most, I suspected he was going to put in a stop at the merch table. As the band roared through Broken Bones & Pocket Change there was a seismic shift when he began to croon from the middle of the floor. As if that wasn’t enough, he made his way to the back, up the stairs into the balcony. I held my breath as he stood atop the balcony railing and wailed. Awestruck fans hanging onto his cape for dear life. Please don’t fall from the sky! But sing, man, sing! If you’re an Instagram follower of Star-Trib writer Chris Reimenschneider, he captured that moment for all of us to see. Highly recommended.
I didn’t walk in last night a doubting Thomas. I was minding my own business when a bolt hit me from the blue, knocked me into the dust and broke my bones. But then I was shown the light and resurrected. What a delight to see the resurgence of classic R&B and Soul. Next time St. Paul & The Broken Bones come to town, I’ll be there. I’ll bring all the Apostles with me.