November 4, 2008

State Theatre Enthralled by Dynamo Sharon Jones

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Frustrated with the half-hour delay, and already having chatted up the plaid-wearing I.C. boys next to me, I probably would have left my back-row seat in the State Theatre before the show even started Saturday night had I not been waiting to witness a true musical talent in the flesh.
When opening act for the night took stage, only a handful of people seemed really excited. (I found myself snickering when a middle-aged man jumped out of his seat to dance, for example.) It was a different story later on, however, when Sharon Jones pranced into the spotlight. Then, I was one of the only people left sitting down, because how can you sit down when a woman like that is onstage?
“We’re all about that funky town,” Jones, glowing in a short and flirty dress, declared to the cheering crowd. Once called the “Queen of Funk,” Jones represents a return to the essence of soul. Part old school retro, her cutting voice was made to sing, and it’s easy to imagine her featured alongside voices like James Brown back in the hey-day of funk and soul. It’s hard to believe that this diva was once a prison guard at Riker’s Island.
A performer her entire life, Jones’ persistence finally paid off when she started garnering recognition in the ’90s. Her group, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, formed in 2000 and have already released three albums of soul revival music. Their most recent album, 100 Days, 100 Nights was released in fall 2007.
Before Jones stole the stage, the evening opened with a performance by the Menahan Street Band. A collaboration of artists that included four members of Sharon Jones’ 8-piece back-up band, the Dap-Kings, the Menahan Street Band classify their music as “soul/funk/other”; their sound is an interesting mix featuring instruments like congas and a flute. Unfortunately, the State Theatre wasn’t the best venue for their music to be appreciated. They weren’t animated and, without a vocalist, the stage felt relatively stale. As a result, the band wasn’t captivating to watch. It felt like they were playing, not performing, which was a shame, because musically they were excellent.
The Dap-Kings finally took the stage following an extended intermission. The group was once borrowed by the fabulous British train wreck known as Amy Winehouse, playing back-up on her 2006 album, Back to Black. Needless to say, they were fantastic. As the band started to play solo, the audience’s anticipation for Jones’ entrance was high.
Walking onstage, Jones immediately dazzled the audience with her sassy and powerful voice. Though the center of attention, Jones wasn’t hesitant to invite people onstage to share the limelight, and promptly called up one woman up to join her singing a track from the band’s most recent album, called “How Do I Let a Good Man Down?” Later, she coaxed a man onstage, serenading him while he acted along, transfixed, probably pinching himself in disbelief that he was actually next to her.
During another song, she grabbed six women onstage to dance behind her and (attempt to) sing a little backup. For the stage-shy, she had the entire audience participate during the refrain of another song. The energy between audience and Jones was incredible.
The singer danced non-stop throughout the performance, and her sultry sound never faltered as she interacted with and sung to the crowd. During one song, which served as a tribute to her African heritage, Jones took off her heels and belted out while showing off her dancing skills. Sauntering back over to her shoe — which she slipped back on at a record speed — she continued to talk to the crowd. Most people would have been exhausted after a performance like that. Jones, however, continued on. She didn’t lose a breath.