Funk Soul Brothers

Harold Ray doesn't exist. But he and his band are one of S.F.'s best live acts.

On a balmy night in August, hordes of vintage scooters -- 100, easily -- line the alley leading to 330 Ritch. Inside the nightclub, a crowd looking alternately like motorcycle-gang members and tight-sweatered hipsters has gathered for the King's Classic Scooter Rally. Presiding explosively over the bopping mass is a ragtag group of soul musicians. The saxophonist sports Buddy Holly glasses and mushroom hair; a keyboard player exhibits such wild gyrations he nearly topples the very organ he's playing. At the front of the stage thrashes the singer, gliding across the floor like it's ice, slamming a tambourine, and letting out wails like James Brown -- if James Brown were a pasty white guy. This is Harold Ray Live in Concert.

In fact, "Harold Ray" is a soft-spoken 27-year-old named Jason Morgan, who prices CDs and 45s at Amoeba Music in Berkeley. But with his five-piece backing band, Live in Concert, Morgan is precisely what he's supposed to be -- frontman for one of the best damn live acts this or any crowd has ever seen. Despite a repertoire of cover tunes, the garage-soul group has concocted a highly original concept: a band that exists for the sole purpose of playing live, even when it comes to making records. Its debut album on Alternative Tentacles, recorded live in one night, was released this month on CD, as well as on vinyl and eight-track -- because along with Harold Ray's devotion to classic soul comes an addiction to vintage equipment, recording formats, and, in some cases, scooters. Sure, it's high concept, but in the best possible way.

"We just wanted to be a live band," says drummer Jack Matthew. "So many bands sound great recorded, but we weren't seeing a lot of bands that put out energy onstage."

Joe Niem

Details

With Hard Place and Rob Younger & the Leaving Trains

Thursday, Sept. 25, at 9 p.m.

Tickets are $7

621-4455

w ww.bottomofthehill.com

Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St. (at Missouri), S.F.

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In its sentiment and its sound, Harold Ray Live in Concert takes its cues from soul greats like Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, and, of course, James Brown. But for material on their self-titled debut album, the musicians infused far dustier catalogs with their infectious, slapdash aesthetic.

On the crowd-pleaser "Ain't Nothing But a House Party," by little-known soul band the Showstoppers, the normally timid Morgan howls sultrily, "I know it's cold outside, baby/ C'mon babe I'll keep you satisfied." On Carl Holmes & the Commanders' "Soul Dance No. 3," Dennis Cabuco tears through with a bass line so frisky you could dance to it on its own. Rousing spurts of Charlie Karr's saxophone adopt the power of entire horn sections on songs like "Barefootin'," penned by obscure New Orleans musician Robert Parker. Then there's "Goin' Back to Miami," by pop-soul oddball Wayne Cochran, which Morgan discovered while growing up in the song's namesake city.

"I'm a big football fan, and when the Dolphins used to score, they would play that song," Morgan remembers. "That was one of my favorite songs as a kid."

The band's record contains just one original tune, titled "The Waycross." Still, everyone but the most seasoned soul fan will be as unfamiliar with the covers as he is with the Harold Ray­penned song. "They might as well be originals," says saxophonist Karr.

Since the band's inception 2 1/2 years ago, cutting-edge songwriting has never been the goal. Even before their Harold Ray arrived, founding members Karr and Matthew decided to name the band Live in Concert, then attach that to the moniker of whatever frontman came on board.

"It was very high concept, an art project with music attached," remembers Karr with a smirk. "We had the concept hammered down well before there was any chance to execute it."

The pair set out to find a guitarist with a fruitless series of classified ads. ("Never put out an ad for a guitar player," Matthew warns, "unless you're approaching it as an art project in itself.") Instead, the band happened upon organist Justin Magaña, whose enthusiastically calamitous stage antics with other bands had caught Karr's attention. "I saw him onstage and realized this was exactly what our band needed," he says.

Similarly, guitarist Dave Coffman had seen Karr perform with another soul band, the Inciters, and was duly impressed. So it was serendipitous when a mutual friend suggested that Karr invite Coffman, who'd never been in a band before, to join the group. "I was like, 'Soul? That sounds like fun. I could get behind that,'" says the 24-year-old Coffman.

When it came to choosing a singer -- and the band's namesake -- Magaña suggested Morgan, an acquaintance he'd seen perform in the power-pop band the Close-Ups. "He was a great frontman, and I thought, 'I gotta be in a band with this guy someday,'" says Magaña. "I saw him at Amoeba and asked him to come to a practice. Everybody knew right away [that he was perfect]."

A month before the first show -- October 2001 at the Eagle Tavern -- Cabuco came on as bassist, and the newly christened Harold Ray Live in Concert was complete. Along with his bold stage persona, Morgan adopted an alter ego derived from his middle name, "Harold," and his dad's middle name, "Ray."

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