By contemporary music standards – meaning criteria that stressed image and appearance over artistic instinct and integrity – Sharon Jones was a success story that should have never happened. She possessed not the camera ready looks that sold most careers, nor did she cater to the commercial whims of artists that turned the soul music traditions she took to so naturally into shameless, retro-directed stabs at stardom. As the breakout artist of the heralded indie soul-roots label Daptone, Jones was never a revivalist, either. She simply embraced the emotive core of predominantly new songs and let her potent yet very elemental voice roar. Sure, her brass-savvy band, The Dap Kings, dressed her vocals with the kind of organic orchestration that helped define soul and R&B music during the ‘50s and ‘60s. But this particular pairing of singer and band never remotely sounded like a purposely retro driven enterprise. In terms of spirit and stamina, Jones and the Dap Kings created a soul sound that was never less than immediate and vital.
Jones died yesterday at age 60 after an extended battle with pancreatic cancer.
Jones’ Daptone records – especially, 2007’s “100 Days, 100 Nights,” 2010’s “I Learned the Hard Way” and 2011’s far more aggressive and funky “Soul Time!” were splendid documents of a vintage-flavored soul sound retooled with vitality for the present day. But it was onstage, where the full powers of Jones and the Dap Kings came into play.
I was lucky enough to see them in performance twice. The first, a 2008 concert in Louisville was surprisingly tentative. Jones sang great, but the show’s numerous quirks, including a faulty monitor mix, seemed to get the better of her to the point where she briefly left the stage. All in all, an accomplished evening that fell short of expectations.
The second was at the now defunct Buster’s in 2010 and the difference was astounding. The voice, the band, the audience and, most of all, the spirits, were all in peak form. The latter attribute sold the show. Having been introduced onstage as “the most brilliant star in the Daptone soul universe,” Jones gave a quick demonstration of the dance moves she grew up with – the Pony, the Funky Chicken, the Mashed Potato and the Swim – with the Dap Tones’ three man horn team at her side. Later, she triggered the volcanic vocal intensity of “When I Come Home” but chilled the festivities for the regal soul cool that sat at the heart of the title tune from “I Learned the Hard Way.” At every step, the singer looked to be having the time of her life. The singing was astounding, the music was arresting, but it was attitude that ignited this joyous, cross-generational soul celebration.
“Soul music ain’t something you can count off every few measures as you go,” Jones told me in an interview prior to the performance. “Oh no. You’ve got to feel it. It all comes from the heart. And that’s what you hear when we’re onstage – that presence, that happiness, that spirit. You’re feeling what we’re feeling.”