Grits ain't groceries

Soul Food Cafe tries to take blue-eyed soul to another level

"With Brother we'd needed something quick," Allen remembers. "We weren't gonna do that again. On the other hand, we didn't want to spend as much money as we had on the first album, so we took the time and did it for as little cost as possible. That takes time."

"Plus, we'd written no music," Wisdom reiterates. The band had to start from scratch and, "It took us a long time to get to where the music seemed to be going anywhere. We were at that point of 'Should we even continue to be a band?'"

"The first big rise we got, we got from just playing all the time," Allen says. "Sometimes we'd do two gigs in a night and end up going until 4 in the morning down at [now-defunct Deep Ellum club] Dave's Art Pawn Shop. "Our schedule now doesn't even compare."

The group retained talented local ubiquity Mike Daane (who plays bass for Ugly Mus-Tard and has produced Caulk, Junky Southern, and others), but on the cheap: filling out his odd down times and spare moments with so bright. "We worked around his schedule," Wisdom explains, "but finally he said, 'OK, guys, I'll give you the whole month of March [1996].' It took us till July."

There were personnel changes, as well. Bass player Dwayne King had played with Housebill, sharing many gigs with SFC. "We were more jazz-funk," King says. "It was a whole different trip, but a good mesh...I always dug what they [SFC] were doing; there was a groove, which was real important, but they were really layin' it out there--very visceral. They were doing shit that mattered, and I wanted to see that take on a life of its own." King brought more of a hip-hop sensibility to the beat, meshing nicely with the band's aspirations.

"Ever since Gospel we'd been trying to mix hip-hop accents to basic rock song structure," guitarist Brad McLemore says. McLemore, formerly with Curious George ("one of several monkey bands" ascendant at the time, he notes wryly), had worked on Wisdom's solo project. He joined Soul Food Cafe in 1993, around the time of the band's decision to take to the highway. "We wanted that room--the room in which to stretch out...In the old days we used to solo for 160, 170 [musical] bars."

"We got on the backbeat a little more on this album," Allen says. "You can be behind the beat, a bit more laid back, and that gives a song room to flow and to breathe."

"I had been into the whole Manchester scene," Wisdom says. "I loved the way they took those hip-hop rhythm tracks and wrote rock songs to them...It was a sweet groove, and we wanted to add the passion of real soul music to that...When Dwayne joined, we finally said, 'Y'know, guys, we're just a soulful band.'"

So bright so blind is the band's accession to that fact. Gospel now may be that most dreaded of band products--the first album, some redheaded stepchild band members would just as soon forget--but it is very much the father to so bright despite the disavowals; not so much in overt sound but very much in ambition. Gospel was a combination of Little Feat grooving, Wisdom's soulman vocals, low-key white-boy funk with jazzy accents and rock, all influences that have matured and grown with the times. As so bright does now, Gospel showed a band that prides itself on songwriting, and it established a "set piece" feel behind the tunes that continues.

On so bright Wisdom does a soaring extrapolation of a Marvin Gaye-Curtis Mayfield hybrid, the force of his message propelling him into the realm of falsetto; the horns are gone, but McLemore's multitracked guitar parts offer up fuzzed lead lines and chunks of distorted rhythm chording in their stead, still finding the time for some jazzy Southern comping. King and Allen form a seamless unit that is by no means derivative but still stands as a prime example of the post-hip-hop, post-Chili Peppers age, lending so bright a deeper groove. The two exercise subtlety throughout, allowing their influences to guide them while they resist the trend toward plastering turntable tautologies all over everything.

Soul Food Cafe takes the whole of pop progress since Gospel and incorporates it into its sound. Thematically developed but still funky, so bright is the product of a better-fed, more muscular band grown older and more experienced, more mature but every bit as idiosyncratic as the band that put out Gospel.

McLemore and Wisdom put the basic songs together, then the whole band works out the final arrangements cooperatively. The song is "pretty definite when we get it," allows King. "But we each add our own color, and if it doesn't work out..."

"It dies," Wisdom interjects. "We move on."
"And maybe it comes back later." McLemore adds. "Whatever."
Hopefully, this time the band's eclectic nature won't hold it back. In trying to reclaim old turf, SFC is in a pickle similar to other revived/rededicated acts such as Leroy Shakespeare and the Ship of Vibes, up against an age-old opponent, part enemy and part friend but completely implacable and inscrutable: the Dallas audience. If you think area football fans are fickle, check out Dallas showgoers (those that bother), possessed of an attention span shorter than that of a lobotomized Labrador: If you leave, they'll forget about you; and if you stay, they'll wonder what the hell your problem is.

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