Sunday, August 23, 2015

Barrence Whitfield and The Savages deliver in studio and on stage

Barrence Whitfield made a great return to the music scene in 2013 with Dig Thy Savage Soul, his first album in two decades, which became my favourite album of the year.

The new Barrence Whitfield and the Savages album, Under The Savage Sky, was just released by Bloodshot Records. While it won't top my 2015 faves list, it will certainly be on it.

The 12-song album, featuring eight originals and four covers, is brimming with short, straight to the gut tunes that blend vintage '60s soul and garage rock and combine to form a damn near irresistible package.

The 60-year-old Whitfield is a bona fide belter, guitarist Peter Greenberg (The Lyres, DMZ) pulls off licks that stick with you, the rhythm section of drummer Andy Jody and bassist Phil Lenker (The Lyres) propel things at a spirited clip, and saxophonist Tom Quartulli plays a more noticeable role than on the last album.

"Bad News Perfume" stops just short of becoming unhinged while down and dirty ballad "Adjunct Street" provides a nice change of pace. Timmy Willis’ “I’m a Full Grown Man,” Kid Thomas’ “The Wolf Pack,” Eddie Snow’s “I’m a Good Man” and Mercy Baby’s “Rock and Roll Baby” blend seamlessly with Whitfield's own songs.

But as good as Whitfield and the Savages are on record, things kick into an even higher gear on stage. They played Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern on Friday night, which he said was his first appearance in the city since the Blue Jays won the World Series. Local baseball fans are hoping that lightning will strike again but, even if the Jays fall short, Friday's electrifying performance was of championship quality.

The 22-song set kicked off with "The Wolf Pack" and the vintage "Bip Bop Bip" and included lots of songs from the two most recent albums while also reaching back farther into the catalogue several times. While I definitely liked Under The Savage Sky, hearing several of its songs live added to my appreciation of it, and the soul element of Whitifield's music came across even stronger in person.

Whitfield threw air punches through much of "Willie Meehan," a song about a relatively unheralded boxer who knocked out the legendary Jack Dempsey twice in their five bouts in 1917 and 1918. And since I was standing in the front row for much of the show, I was hit a few times by the beads of sweat that flew off his face and prompted him to wring out his shirt towards the end of the gig.

Whitfield lied down on the stage with his head resting on the monitor at the conclusion of "Walkin' With Barrence" and stayed there until rising like a phoenix from the ashes to ask the crowd if it wanted to hear more music as the rest of the band members who had left the stage made their return.

Folks weren't disappointed as the encore kicked off with "Ramblin' Rose." It had less punch and more soul than the proto-punk MC5 version and while it may not have been played as fast, it remained a powerful force. The audience clapped along to "Georgia Slop," which was followed by "I'm A Good Man." The high-energy 80-minute performance came to a too-soon conclusion with oldie and goodie "Dig Yourself."

Whitfield promised that it won't be another 22 years before he returns to Toronto, which is great news for the people who were there to see him and all of those who weren't but should. I don't think it will have quite the same impact when the man is 82.