By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The grungy guy in the practice room talking to Sharon Brown, publicist for the Dallas gospel group Greg O'Quin and Joyful Noyze, is quite a contrast to the rest of the folks gathered for rehearsal. He's tall, lanky, and white; the sides of his head are shaved, while on top a mass of tight dirty-blond braids falls down his back a la Offspring's Dexter Holland. While everyone else in the room seems dressed for work, the guy's jeans-and-T-shirt combo fairly screams "rock band!"
"Hey, um...I heard you guys the other night practicing, and it sounded really, really good in there," the young guy says. "What is it that y'all do?"
"We're a gospel group," Brown says, smiling.
"Gospel funk," someone in the background adds.
The guy nods. "It sounded great, it really did. Do y'all play around anywhere?"
"We're playing this Saturday," Brown reports. "Only ten dollars."
"Ten dollars?" the musician says, the grinding of gears in his mind almost audible. "Well, keep up the good work," he calls over his shoulder as he walks away.
You might dismiss that as a fluke brought about by some band dude with unusually broad musical tastes, but it was the second time that evening that some unlikely rocker had strolled by Joyful Noyze's practice room to compliment them on their sound, a solid mix of soulful R&B and gospel testimony that has already gotten them an album--try'n 2 make u see, released last month--on the gospel branch of major Christian label Word Records.
Joyful Noyze was formed by O'Quin, who was coming off of a stint as the musical director, keyboardist, and producer for a series of soul acts including Al Green. Also the minister of music at New Birth Baptist Church in Oak Cliff, O'Quin had worked with college choirs and the six-man contemporary gospel group Kindred before deciding to form his own gospel ensemble. "I wanted something like the Sounds of Blackness, only closer to the church," says O'Quin. "I wanted something that would get people into the deal through music, something like me--"he pulls on his earlobe. "I've got an earring, see, and that helps me with the people who think that a preacher has to wear a suit and a big cross around his neck. I want to use music to minister to people and help bring them to the church of God."
The album--full of smooth, soulful R&B grooves and sharp, multi-voiced gospel singing, certainly seems able to attract listeners on the basis of its secular appeal. "We want to offer people the same party they're looking for, without the drugs and violence you so often find," O'Quin says, explaining that the inspiration for this strategy came from talking to a manager who noted that of the 1,400 people at his club, probably 900 went to church the next day. "Gospel has had to grow because kids today don't want to hear 'Amazing Grace,' they want to hear Metallica or New Edition; but there's still a real need out there. That's why we want to give kids something closer to what they'd ordinarily listen to. Music is just the hook to get attention; after that, it's what you drop, and our message as gospel singers will never change."
O'Quin and Joyful Noyze aren't just sticking to church and youth groups, however. "We want to go straight into the clubs like a bill collector, saying 'Jesus paid the cost, now how will you make it up?' I don't preach, though--I'm not an ordained minister--but God does speak to me, and I minister through my music."
try'n 2 make u see takes the basic contemporary gospel formula--group vocals that operate like a small-scale mass choir, with different featured vocalists taking turns rising above the group accompaniment, trebly guitars scratching out a rhythmic high end while the bass thumb-pops along and keyboards percolate with a funky, clavinet-like burble--and delivers it with polish. The bass and drums reference hip-hop and rap in their rhythm patterns and parts, while piano and synthesizer keep a soaring, churchlike vibe in the mix. The vocals are superbly matched.
In rehearsal, O'Quin--who wrote all the songs on try'n--is part director, part taskmaster, and part inspiration, helping to lead Joyful Noyze through questions of blocking, cue, and presentation. As the group goes through songs off the album like "Standing" (where the chorus hook's confession--"Standing in the need of prayer"--is more the celebration of a relationship than an admission of failure) and "Can God? God Can!" (currently receiving a good local response), the individual members bounce and sway in time to the music, seemingly squeezing every bit of energy and commitment out of themselves.
"People have concerns about gospel in the clubs," O'Quin says, "but I have a radical thing to say, and that's that Christians are like racists--they just want to be separate. But Christ preached in a church only twice. The rest of the time, he was out in the street, and that's where I want to go through my music."
Zeke Campbell, 1915-1997
Another founding father of Western swing passed on this month. William Muryel "Zeke" Campbell, one of the electric guitar's pioneers and a member of the famed late-'30s Light Crust Doughboys--considered by most to be the group's finest incarnation--died March 5 at his home in Hurst.
Campbell--who can be seen in the Rounder/Vestapol video Legends of Western Swing Guitar--joined the Doughboys two weeks before Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery, in October 1935. His skill at synthesizing blues and country was so complete as to render the result jazz. He appeared with the Doughboys in their two singing cowboy movies, Oh Susannah and The Big Show; it's he who plays the jaw-dropping acoustic lead during Oh Susannah's patio scene.
"He had a fantastic single-string technique," Montgomery recalls. "Before [the electric guitar], you couldn't even hear the guitar, but we'd play the state fair in Arkansas every year, and we'd go down to the colored clubs after work and Zeke'd bring his guitar and set in, and that's where he learned all that single-note stuff and string-bending."
Campbell, Montgomery, and the great piano player "Knocky" Parker formed a sort of triumvirate within the Doughboys. "We had to be in the studio at nine," Montgomery explains. "But we didn't have to go on the air until 11, so we'd just sit around and jam, every weekday morning. We'd pick a song, play it through, and then change the key, working our way through every key for each song. We'd also get together on Sunday afternoons with our wives, and have dinner and play."
Campbell's command of his instrument was so complete that he often didn't seem to recognize that it was a guitar. "He could play anything," Montgomery says. "On [the famous Doughboys song] 'Pussy, Pussy, Pussy,' he was playing piano parts. We'd sit around and listen to Benny Goodman records, and he'd be playing Goodman's clarinet parts. I'd transcribe these big band arrangements for the Doughboys--we were a string band--and he'd take the part of the trumpet player."
Montgomery and Campbell remained friends for life. "He was the straightest guy I ever knew," Montgomery says, noting that Campbell was playing single-string lead lines years before jazzmen like Charlie Christian. "He really pioneered the electric guitar." The Rounder/Vestapol video notes that if Eldon Shamblin was Western swing's first great rhythm player, Campbell was its first comparable soloist--high praise indeed. Campbell is survived by a brother, two children, four grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
Returning from SXSW is Bangalore Torpedo, the new project of Deborah Vial and Darla Whisenant, late of Blanche Fury; check them out at Sue Ellen's Monday, March 30...Sammons Jazz salutes the great Ella Fitzgerald on Wednesday, April 2...Baboon's new album Secret Robot Control is out on NYC-based Wind-up records.
Fans of western swing may wish to ease the pain of Zeke Campbell's passing this Saturday, March 29, by seeing Ray Condo at the Blue Mule...Condo is a fine example of the talent running amok on the West coast that, unfortunately, doesn't often make it over thisaway...Jim Suhler's Monkey Beat has a new bass player: Jim Milan, late of Doyle Bramhall's band, replaces Carlton Powell...speaking of bassists, Homer Henderson--he of the one man band--is the new bass player for the Nitrons, replacing Chad Lovell, who moves over to Doosu...Thursday, March 27, the Good/Bad Art Collective is having a benefit at the Argo featuring Corn Mo, Dooms UK, Baboon (minus vocalist Andy Huffstetler and featuring a galaxy of guest singers) and heavy with rumors of girls in cages, runways, and other zaniness. "it'll be more than just rock," intones the inimitable Mr. Mo...
REO a-go-go: After a very successful West Coast tour, REO Speedealer is back and basking in the fact that three of their songs are featured on the latest edition of MTV Sports, and former drummer Toby Sheets has rejoined the band. Look for a seven-inch to come out in a few weeks with the only available recording of "The Admiral" b/w "Fancypants" and "Crankbait," or catch them this Saturday, March 29, at Club Clearview...On a slightly different tip, Brave Combo is getting ready to release a new album--look for Group Dance Epidemic on Rounder in June. The Combo is also reaching a Toadies-like level of saturation on film soundtracks, popping up on The Devil's Own, Feeling Minnesota, Fools Rush In, Lords of Illusion, and Late Bloomers. See 'em this Friday, March 28, at the Czech Club, or Saturday at Rick's Place in beautiful downtown Denton...If you elect to stay within the city limits, take advantage of a rare chance to see Daniel Johnston play songs off of his critically acclaimed Fun album that night with Dallas' Sutcliffes at the Barley House.
Street Beat walks like an Egyptian at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.