By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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."
"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 .' 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.
"Our problem has always been that we don't fit into any category," Wisdom admits. "At least with Leroy Shakespeare, when you hear his name, you think 'reggae'...I think that before we had been trying to get to where everybody else's songs were, and on this one we really said, 'This is what we do well.' It may end up fucking us, because--like on the road--if people can easily identify you, you make a lot more sense to them."
Live, the band comes off much crunchier than it does in the studio. King and Allen form a tight, dependable--but still interesting--support structure, while McLemore (one of best guitarists in town) supplies texture and decoration. He looks kind of like Eric Clapton, and, without sounding like him, manages to fulfill a number of expectations, just like ol' Slowhand--taking the reins with "watch this" panache or lying back and merely adding footnotes to the main musical narrative.
It's an inclusiveness that never seems strained, but McLemore recently invited Jason Schummer to sit in with Soul Food so that the band could explore the possibilities of second guitarist. The noticeably younger Schummer--formerly of Headshop--grew up outside of Chicago, in the Hinsdale area. "There's a little of everything there," Schummer says, "and I grew up listening to all sorts of stuff--Ramones, Dead Kennedys, and at the same time Led Zeppelin and all that." He may have a heavier heritage, but many metal bands have underappreciated rhythm guitarists, and Schummer lives up to that promise, meshing solidly with King and Allen and often forming with them a three-piece rhythm section. McLemore--formerly the Fill King on his own--obviously is carefully choosing the changes in his role, slowly capitalizing on his new freedom.
"I could never do live all the subtle things and multiple parts that we've put on the album," he says. "That's why we got another guitar player...Now I can get closer to all the stuff I do in the studio."
With so bright so blind Soul Food Cafe tries to re-establish itself in the minds and hearts of area music fans, but even the fairly sanguine Wisdom acknowledges that the job will not be easy. "We still have people," he says with the slightest hint of a sigh, "coming up and asking us, 'When are you gonna get the horns back?'"
Soul Food Cafe performs Saturday, October 12, at the Dark Room.
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Street Beat is lurking with intent to loom at Matt_Weitz@dallas-observer.com.