The Days began the evening's soul session with a short, grimy set of swamp rock and countrified R&B numbers. Quickly, the Expressions stepped on stage, calling the main service to order with a rumbling instrumental.
But the crowd hesitated to dance or approach the stage too closely, worrying, perhaps, that the funk might be too deep for wading into without a guiding hand. The bassist implored us "to get up to get down," but we held back, waiting for Lee Fields' arrival. And then he did.
His eyes shielded with dark sunglasses and decked out in a shimmering, silver shark-skin suit, Fields strolled on stage like a dazzling faith healer. Stocky and energetic, sizzling with charisma and charm, his mini-Afro patted neatly, perfectly, Fields got the room swaying with his smoky social commentary, "My World." As he sang this preamble, Fields unbuttoned his jacket, peeled his shades, extended his arms and lead us into the groove.
Running through material from their fine albums, My World (2009) and Faithful Man (2012), Fields and his six-piece band revived soul. On songs like "Still Hanging On," "Fought For Survival," and "I Still Got It" they delivered the blessed touch through rump-tumbling bass lines, chicken-grease guitar licks, that organ-pumped, on-the-one rhythm and blues, and the trumpet/tenor-sax horn section punctuating Fields' wailed verses.
Like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings or Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band, Fields and the Expressions can channel multiple classic soul modes -- Muscle Shoals, Stax, Philadelphia International. But on numbers like "Money I$ King," where Fields shrieked James Brown-like over the band's grits, greens, and pass-the-peas funk, you could hear why early in his career he was sometimes called, "Lil' JB."
Brown's catalog is fecund, obviously. But when Fields sang his odes to womanly beauty like "Ladies," "Honey Dove," and "You're the Kind of Girl," his voice came from some rich spot between Otis Redding's gravely urgency and Bobby Womack's pleading warble. While he doesn't have wide vocal range, Fields' voice is often exceptional and overwhelming: late in the set, during "Standing By Your Side," when his microphone cord disconnected, Fields sang clearly, beautifully, without amplification, over the final bars of the song.
Closing the show, Fields was all himself on "Faithful Man," a song about spirituality, marital fidelity and a 23-year-old femme fatale. Necessarily, the music hovered between a dirge and alter call -- "Never felt so guilty, never felt so good." When Fields pulled his coat off and cried to his temptress, " I've always been a faithful man/ Don't make me do wrong," his testifying was both a request for mercy and abdication to temptation -- seuxal healing -- the soul man's pastorly paradox. And for ninety minutes on Friday night, we were Fields' willing supplicants, begging for this very benediction.
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