By Jeremy Hallock
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By Observer Staff
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Soul Food Cafe made quite an impression fresh out of the gate in 1990, but that primitive age didn't have the familiarity with odd instrumentation that we now enjoy, and folks were flummoxed by the band's complex sound: vocalist Sean Wisdom's impressive white-boy-soul delivery, the horns, the jazzy improv alternating with Little Featlike grooves, and the lyrics that strove for the same sense of meaning that the great Motown and Stax/Volt singles had. Most people ended up thinking of Soul Food Cafe as some sort of blues band, which it definitely wasn't.
"Those were big times," recalls Soul Food Cafe's leader and lead vocalist Sean Wisdom at Club Dada before a recent benefit gig. "I guess we hit our peak around '92...We could sell out Trees, sell a lotta beer, that kind of stuff. The New Bo[hemian]s had just happened, Ten Hands was big; other bands that were our contemporaries--like Tripping Daisy, with whom we split gigs at Trees--were doing well.
"It seems like everybody who's famous now opened for us in the past," Wisdom continues. "That seems like one of the best things a band could do back then."
"Open for Soul Food, get a major label deal within six months," drummer Kingsley Allen says with a shake of his head and a smile. Allen and Wisdom are the core of Soul Food Cafe, together since the beginning, and both men know the slightly bitter taste of the impossible: It's too bad SFC couldn't have managed the feat of opening for itself; instead of a major label deal, the band ran smack into the glass ceiling that plagues so many, abundant local success that just doesn't translate into anything more than tons of road gigs.
Band members say they also found themselves crosswise to the tastes of the times. Gospel, their first full-length CD, featured horns and has been described by more than one person as "Dallas' version of the Commitments," but the horns SFC used confused audiences in the early '90s; the title Gospel didn't help matters.
Trying to build on its local success, the band sought to establish itself on the road. "In August of '93 we all quit our day jobs," Wisdom remembers. "We made a decision to take it on the road. We'd had some label interest, and it was the beginning of that period here where bands were just starting to get signed. A couple good friends of the band told us that we'd never be taken seriously until we went out on the road, so we headed out."
The band gigged relentlessly, and even had big time, Nashville-based representation, only to find out that breaking big took more than that. "The problem was that we just didn't put out any music while we were on the road," Wisdom admits. The successful Gospel was followed by Brother in 1993, but only a third of Brother was new; the rest was already-released material, some from Gospel and the rest from a Wisdom solo project.
"We basically just did that to have something to sell out on the road, so that people who liked us would have some music to take home," Wisdom says. "On the road we just didn't write any music, and suddenly we turned around and it's been, like, two years since Brother and three years since we'd put out a really new album."
That held back the band. Jim Zumwalt, Soul Food Cafe's Nashville rep, brought 10 labels to see SFC at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin in 1994, and everyone loved it, but they all said the same thing: "'Great band, now all we need is to hear some new songs,'" Wisdom recalls. The band's hard-to-classify sound also worked against it. Faced with a band that didn't fit their preconceived notions, audiences tended to lump SFC in with whatever was hot at the time.
Then, according to Wisdom, "the whole grunge thing blew up...We had people coming up and saying, 'Y'all are great; you sound just like Pearl Jam'--which is ridiculous--and then other people would say that they loved our 'James Brown-John Cougar Mellencamp thing.'"
After years of work, the band members found themselves at a crossroads: which way to go? Quit or stay with it? The catalyst for their decision came during a late night/early morning drive back to Dallas from Austin after a gig. Wisdom and Allen were watching the sky just begin to change, facing down day jobs that were scant hours away. They started to talk, confronting the band's image problem, something that had been bothering both of them. "People weren't looking at the band the way we wanted them to," Wisdom recalls. "That was when we started working on [so bright so blind, the band's just-released album], but before that we really had to make the decision that anything we did was going to have to be a serious step up...We were going to have to know where we were going musically."