Thursday, June 02, 2011

6.2.11 Naomi Shelton and The Gospel Queens

This review appears in the 6.2.11 issue of Metroland

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens

Club Helsinki

May 28, 2011

There’s the old black Southern Baptist canard about sinning on Saturday night in a bar and repenting Sunday morning in a church, where the music’s pretty much the same as the night before except with different lyrics. Well, lucky us, we got to sin and repent all at the same time at Helsinki Saturday night, with a righteous and cleansing show from Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens.

When soul got replaced by funk in the early 1970’s, classic soul found refuge in the gospel music from whence it came, and that’s what was delivered, classic and familiar big-beat save-your-soul music; the band featured bandleader and keyboardist Cliff Driver, a veteran soul-man and long time Shelton collaborator, and former JB’s bassist Fred Thomas. Damn is right! These cats were on time.

Shelton, who’s gotta be pushing 70, has a limited range, but a fierce spirit and a raspy Otis Redding-like growl, and, like her Daptone label-mate Sharon Jones, she knows how to move a crowd. She pushed the intensity and the vibe and the groove, and was all business, pure-clean-truth gritty, and profoundly adorable. Who knew redemption could be so much fun? And included beer?

The three Gospel Queens were anything but back-up singers—with Shelton, they were the show, singing sweetly and precisely, as one voice. I mean, their vibratos were locked in, for Christ’s sake. (Literally.) Each took a couple of star turns, and I’d pay to see each of them front her own band. The Queens were in a word astounding, and a perfect sweet foil for the fire and brimstone Shelton delivered.

The pacing was breathless, with no pauses between songs, there was thankfully no gratuitous mention of the death of Gil-Scott Heron, Helsinki was as packed as I’ve seen it, and when the band trotted out The Staples Singers “Oh Happy Day” (which my sidekick dubbed “The Mustang Sally” of gospel music) the dance floor loaded up and we were treated to the unfortunate specter of middle-aged white people trying to get what groove they might have on. No matter, everyone was having a blast, and maybe, just maybe, getting it a little more right with their god.

I’d like to suggest that Helsinki beef up its sound system a little bit. What’s there may be fine for cabaret and acoustic acts, but the last couple of shows I’ve seen featured some fairly rockin’ stuff, and the sound lacked the punch and presence the music deserved. Looking around the room one can see sound-soaking material everywhere, and the room seems acoustically dead, which makes for a great sound palette, but the lack of a lively “room sound” needs to be compensated for in the sound reinforcement. Too often Saturday night, I was leaning forward to hear Driver’s keys and Thomas’ bass. In my perfect world, those dudes would have been blowing my hair back.


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