Did Eli "Paperboy" Reed strike a deal with the devil? How else could this 27-year-old Massachusetts native sing like a soulman's screamin' dream, with all the sexy swagger of Wilson Pickett? Last night's performance at Off Broadway demolished all doubt: If you want music of the highest quality on a Tuesday night, then, St. Louis -- you've got to come and get it!
Opener Goodtime Engineers doesn't want you to worry about labels. Is it classic rock vibing with Red Hot Chili Peppers -- or other '90s-era laid-back, bass-heavy rock? Is that a touch of funk? Is that the blues riff from Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man"? The local quartet did admirable work, purveying the groove to an empty room. During a set that didn't outstay its welcome, lead singer Adam Barr's unostentatious style and vocal ability stood out, as did the too-brief harmonica and piano interludes. Stage-roaming bassist Dave Chapman injected exuberance into his "walking bass lines" -- literally!
At 9 p.m., the latest incarnation of the seven-piece True Loves -- which has changed its trumpeter, saxophonist and guitarist since the making of the last album -- took the stage and found an efficient groove, while a sharp-dressed young man with a black pseudo-pompadour leaned against the bar. JB "30 Seconds" Flatt on keys made a superlative-yet-accurate introduction - sort of like sideshow at the Apollo - and Reed grabbed the mic stand for a head-tossing, eyebrow-popping yowling of "The Satisfier."
Anyone familiar with Reed knows his story. The boy from Brookline, Massachusetts, left home after high school, cut his teeth performing with bluesmen in Clarksdale, Mississippi and learned gospel in a church on Chicago's South Side with Mitty Collier, a Chess Records artist-turned-minister. Returning to Boston, Reed hit the scene in 2005 and has drawn comparisons to R&B legends Pickett, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke ever since.
So was a deal struck? Well, if the Robert Johnson story is a metaphor for the sacrifice of commitment to creative talents, then something probably went down. Yet even after years of touring nationally and overseas, performing on TV shows such as Later with Jools Holland and being fawned over by NPR, Reed is still paying his dues. To anyone in the audience last night, it doesn't make sense that the showman isn't more widely known, especially with the popularity surge of soul "throwback" acts like Mayer Hawthorne.
Though exhausted from a month on the road and an 825-mile drive from Austin, where the band performed at South by Southwest, Reed never hinted at fatigue during the set, which lasted more than an hour and included older songs as well as tracks from 2010's Come and Get It, the band's first major-label release with Capitol.
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