Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings
Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012
Davies Symphony Hall
Better than: Any other 56-year-old doing anything.
Watching Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings perform in a venue as cavernous and patrician as Davies Symphony Hall is a bit like trying to enjoy a greasy, home-cooked meal in a rented limousine. You can either sit stiffly upright and fret over the upholstery, or you can dig in, stuff your face and let fatty beadlets of gravy splash where they may.
Tonight, it's clear from the first snare crack to the last horn stab which impulse Jones and her band want their audience to indulge. But, as with any good home-cooked meal, there are appetizers to be had first. The band begins with an up-tempo instrumental funk vamp reminiscent of James Brown's "I Got the Feelin,' " then pivots on a dime (it takes the Dap-Kings approximately two minutes to demonstrate that all of their pivots, breakdowns, stops, transitions, hits, solos and other miscellaneous musical occurrences, from here on out, will be happening on a dime) to a looser workout. Two backup singers, who we soon learn are called "The Dappettes," enter and perform one solo song apiece.
Twenty minutes into the set now. A shimmer of perspiration, visible from the balcony's second tier, is already encroaching upon the players' foreheads. Suit coats have been discarded. Members of the audience have begun to carouse and shimmy. The music swells, and a door by the stage's left edge swings open. Binky Griptite, one of The Dap-Kings' guitarists, announces Jones' imminent arrival.
"Miss! Sharon! Jones!"
At risk of breaking the tension, here's where a little bit of background information about Jones is both appropriate and necessary. She is 56 and solidly built -- two factors that have, for the bulk of her career, nudged her out of popular music's limelight. Though she has been singing since childhood, she didn't catch her first break until 1996, when Dap-Kings bassist Gabriel Roth met her on a recording session and invited her to join the Brooklyn-based Daptone music collective. At the time, she was 40 and working as a prison guard at Rikers Island. She released her first record with the Dap-Kings when she was 46, and it took another five years (and two more albums) before she gained even a whiff of mainstream renown.
All of this is to say that when Jones finally enters, high-stepping and Jagger-prancing in a sequined dress, her exuberance feels thoroughly earned. The band launches into a dense, swaggering cover of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," then into a brief cover of Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" ("I don't know what come after that," Jones admits after crooning the song's intro), then into "Keep On Looking" from 2007's 100 Days, 100 Nights. Each pause is expertly timed and seemingly calculated for maximum audience delight and torment. Each turnaround and tempo change occurs, as mentioned above, on a dime. The band continues to sweat unabashedly.
Jones's live performances are known for their inclusiveness, and tonight is no exception. During "Keep On Looking," she invites six young women up to the stage to dance with her. Then, shortly after kicking off "Pick It Up, Lay It in the Cut," she calls upon a young man named Ricky to breakdance. Where exactly Jones met Ricky, and how they arranged this rendezvous, is perplexing. Before Ricky leaves the stage, Jones sinks to her haunches and appears to be preparing for her own breakdance -- a move that sends a mini-shockwave of worry through the audience. After a few lethargic, tongue-in-cheek leg lifts, it's clear that Jones is making light of her age and limitations. The gesture somehow feels significant, generous, and reassuring all at once.
The set concludes with the title track from 100 Days, 100 Nights, then unfurls into a three-song encore, which itself concludes with the gospel-infused "Answer Me." At this point, Jones and her band have burned through 120 minutes of drum-tight, vintage funk without really coming up for air at all. They've done their best to convert this enormous coliseum into a sweaty juke joint -- to coax audience members onstage, to fill the venue's hundreds of aisles with revelers, to induce the kicking off of heels and the unbuttoning of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of top buttons.
Make no mistake: The best place to witness Jones and her band tearing through their prodigious repertoire remains a tiny, smoky club. This will always be the case. But the thing about a talent like Jones's is that it tends to explode out of small cubs, large clubs, and festivals. It swells until you find yourself in a packed symphony hall, watching a 56-year-old woman sprint across a stage for two hours without so much as flubbing a note. The world -- or this corner of it, at least -- finally appears ready for Sharon Jones. Which is great, because she was born ready.
Overheard, every time Sharon Jones said anything: