an exceptionally tardy review of Sharon Jones at the Jefferson

December 27th, 2009 · 3 Comments · By

{I promised Danny a review of the Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings show at The Jefferson two weeks ago, although 2½ feet of snow and a week of unbelievably crazy shit at work (mixed with a handful of surprise parties and wintertime inebriation) means this review is only now seeing print in these pages… sorry folks! Better late than never, I think.}

My Saturday evening started off rather hectically; After working all afternoon, I dashed across town to catch the tail end of a Birthday Party (my invitation arrived at the last minute), munching cheese & crackers for dinner and enjoying a glass of champagne before heading back Downtown in time for the Sharon Jones show.

I arrived at the Jefferson around 8:30, and got my first look at the (mostly-)completed interior of the now-open venue.  It’s weird how much it feels like a totally new space, yet still retains so many distinct and memorable details of the old Jefferson. The molding and columns are still there, as is the sloping auditorium floor (although they’ve built an awesome platform / stairs / bar area in the middle of it). The stagefront is still where it used to be, meaning the stage itself is now behind where the movie screen was, in the old Nature gallery and art-space. The second floor has now been re-opened as a balcony, although it seems the third level remains a crazy mysterious wasteland. (I’m told a man once actually lived up there, sleeping and storing his stuff between the still-attached seats. In fact, this same man now lives in my kitchen.)

There’s also a second bar and set-of-bathrooms under the first, ensuring that the lines remain short all around. The downstairs had a strangely Tavern-esque vibe, and seemed a little under-utilized; a long hallway led back to the old Lighthouse / Better Than Television space, which remains an unfinished space. We had a few drinks while waiting for a show to get underway; the Budweisers are those weird, unfortunate futuristic metal bottle things that made you wish you had ordered something else, although this is almost made up for by the 22-oz PBR cans.* I didn’t have enough money on hand to sample anything more expensive — in fact, I had no money at all, so the drinks I did have were all thanks to the generosity of others (thanks, Christopher and Grace! and Emily! and Brooke!)

*I never asked for water, but was told later that the H20 was for sale only (no free cups of tap-water) — which, if this is true, is an unbelievable pile of bullshit. The Jefferson will find themselves in serious trouble with grumpy and dehydrated audiences come summertime, if this policy continues. If the audience is expected to pay $25 for a show, the least they can do is hand out some complimentary water for their patrons.

As the crowd trickled in, a set by Robin Tomlin — aka Rum Cove of WTJU’s excellent Monday afternoon Soul show “the Soulful Situation” — was already underway. There were solid tunes, as expected, although the sound guys unfortunately seemed to be keeping the volume at “friendly-chit-chat level,” rather than “time-to-dance level” — fine for now, although it foreshowed some problems later in the evening. Anyhow, Robin spun for about 20minutes (that I heard) before I was unpleasantly roused from my conversation by the unexpected appearance of an opening band — apparently led by Greg Hester, whose name hadn’t really been included in much (or any) of the promotion for the show. The Trio had some pretty serious chops, but the end result was ultimately more of the same old’ “Hard-Rockin” Whiteguy Blues 101 material; thankfully they stopped well short of crossing over into “Blueshammer” territory.

I listened half-heartedly to the first few songs, then took the opportunity to look around the rest of the venue. The Balcony seating was full, while those still arriving downstairs milled about chatting and drinking. It seemed the crowd was mostly of folks in the 30-50 range (possibly Jones’ core demographic, but presumably also a result of the steep ticket price) and it was probably the most porkpie hats I’ve ever seen sported at one time in Charlottesville (I admit to being guilty of contributing to this phenomenon firsthand.) I ended up chatting with a small crowd of WTJU folks near the lobby; Goldfinger, Colin Powell (head of the Rock Dept, and an excellent Soul / Funk DJ himself) as well as the aforementioned Mr Tomlin, sporting an impeccable ska-checkered porkpie, who took a moment to school me on the various worthwhile contemporary soul-revival acts. Robin soon returned to the front to spin a few more quick tunes before the Dap-Tones took the stage.

They started soon afterwards, as guitarist and bandleader Binky Griptite led the band through an extended, near-20-min vamp to warm up the crowd (and the band) for the appearance of Sharon Jones. The full eight-piece boasted both Sax, Trumpet, and Baritone Sax, and a Bongo player in addition to the full-kit drummer (the horn section all took turns passing a tambourine).  Impressively, as Brad Perry noted, they did not have a keyboard player. The nice thing about the sloped floor and multiple tiers of the Jefferson is that pretty much any spot in the audience feels like a great spot; however, the band had only been playing a few minutes when my companions noted that it was a little too quiet, and we headed up to the front of the now-suddenly-packed auditorium to get a better look&listen.

Sharon Jones herself finally made grand entrance, standing around 5 feet tall in a black evening gown and gold-lamé cape. Ms Jones is, it must be said, an exceptional entertainer, and she effortlessly led the band and the audience through a solid 90-minute set. At various times within the first half-hour, she stopped to make fun of Amy Winehouse, make fun of the audience (all in good fun), and invite various inebriated young women onto the stage to embarrass themselves with their mediocre dancing skills (a word to the not-so-wise: do not attempt to upstage Sharon Jones. It’s like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. She will win every time.) The band were of course up to the task, and the only lapse in professionalism was the fact that several of them ditched their suit jackets after the first few songs (James Brown would fined the heck out of these guys). But the vamp-to-song ratio remained a little too high; by the time Sharon Jones had finally finished introducing every member of the Dap-Kings, Brooke grumbled “when is she gonna play some songs?”

Jones did eventually get around to a fair handful of songs; there weren’t too many fan favorites, although she did offer some perfectly serviceable versions of “My Man is a Mean Man,” “Keep on Looking,” and “Fish in My Dish.” As with her albums, the groovy mid-tempo ballads fared best. But for the most part, the spectacle of vintage 60’s-era Soul revue showmanship was the order of the day. One of the evening’s many highlights was when Jones cleared the stage of all the dancers she had invited and proceeded to school them all, with a full demonstration of how to do the Mashed Potatoes, the Funky Chicken, and the Jerk. The audience responded enthusiastically, but didn’t necessarily reciprocate; maybe it was the age range, or years of attendance at un-funky rock concerts, but they were mostly satisfied to sway in place and cheer. We, however, were definitely in a dancing mood, so Brooke, Paul, Zu, Ian, Zach, Alison, and I took the opportunity to put our dancing shoes to use throughout the better part of the show. If you want to dance to live soul music, there is no contemporary band more appropriate than the Dap-Kings, and all in all it made for a fine evening.

Here, however, we must take a moment to discuss the evening’s most significant drawback: the volume level.  Throughout the show, the levels remained firmly in the quiet-to-medium range, even at the very front of the crowd and closest to the speakers.  I’m not sure if their primary goal was to provide a non-threatening, chatting-level experience for the older and more sensitive patrons, or what, but it was pretty much unacceptably quiet. Furthermore, the über-fancy lighting rig (extending all the way back up to the third floor balcony-front) ensured that the bright light was more or less evenly distributed throughout the venue, ruining the whole effect of the stage’s prescenium arch. The effect was a venue in which it was easier to see-and-be-seen than to enjoy the actual performance; which is a shame, as it seemed the performance going on was pretty damn good. This show should have been, at the very least, half as bright and three times as loud. {and fellas: when the star of the show spends fully 15% of her time onstage begging you to turn up the reverb in her monitors, that means it’s time to turn up the fucking reverb in her monitors.} But Jones remained professional and extraordinarily patient throughout, and from the audience’s end it sounded perfectly well-balanced; just far, far quieter than it should have been.

Still, a fun time was had by all; the crowd loved it, and the band returned for a four-song encore. In fact, the encore was easily the highlight of the evening; every song was short, punchy, and to-the-point, providing greater power and focus than the mild entropy that resulted from the incessant riffing-and-vamping throughout the set proper.  It was a great way to end on a high note, and the show closed out just before midnight.

Then came the second-biggest problem of the evening; the lack of a functional coat-check system. Two racks of hangers had been set up at the top of the stairs near the front entrance, but this wasn’t nearly enough to accommodate the sold-out crowd in winter weather; furthermore, one of the coat racks had collapsed from the weight at some point during the show, leading to an even bigger tangle of coats on the floor. Since I had arrived on the early side, I knew my coat was somewhere near the bottom of the pile (although since so many people were digging through it haphazardly, there was no way to be sure), so my only choice was to leap right in and root around until I found it. It was kind of like being in a mosh-pit full of 50-year-olds with expensive handbags; the discomfort of the experience was almost countered by my bemusement at how bizarre it was. But clearly, a better strategy is needed.

There were several options for informal after-parties, including Steve Richmond DJing at The Southern, and Shane and Greg doing their “Standard” gig at The Box. It sort of functioned like an overflow valve for all the dance energy that hadn’t quite been used by the Jefferson gig. All in all, an exceptionally fun evening.

Tags: review

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Rum Cove // Dec 30, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Very nice article mate, allowing me to relive an evening that to be honest was a little fuzzy what with DJ stuff and socialising. The show in Richmond the previous night was most enjoyable also, nice work and thanks for the kind comments about the Rumcove. Question- Were you the soul who left me New Mastersounds CDs at TJU? If so it will look very good in your file!

  • 2 JN // Dec 30, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    It was a great evening. James, thanks for the review.

    As tech on-call for the evening. I’ll offer what I know about “problem number one” for the evening. I didn’t get to spend much time out front, as I was on stage most of the evening, so I can’t comment directly on any observed sound levels. SJ & tDK travels with their own tech crew – a very accomplished and professional set of individuals within the live sound community. In fact, more than one of the DKs are extremely accomplished recording techs. There’s no shortage of technical talent and good ears on their bus. All this to say – volume level was up to them. The system in the room is not lacking in the power department and I’m sure there’ll be plenty of shows where it’ll be given some gas. Surely NYE will be one of them.

    As far as Sharon’s monitors were concerened – well, what happens in soundguy land stays in soundguy land – but it sounds like this is often the case with her shows. There were a number of factors contributing to how she felt about said “reverb” and not much that could be done about it during showtime. Needless, she sure danced the night away and delivered a great show.

  • 3 轮盘赌博 // Jan 24, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Damn, that sound’s so easy if you think about it.