Graded on a Curve:
The Daptone Super
Soul Revue Live! At
the Apollo

Documenting three sold out nights in 2014, The Daptone Super Soul Revue Live! At the Apollo spreads out across three LPs with performances by Saun & Starr, The Sugarman 3, Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens, Menahan Street Band, The Como Mamas, The Budos Band, Antibalas, a knockout mini-set by Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires, and a full one by flagship act Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. Released to coincide with Daptone’s 20th anniversary, its contents are an extended celebration of the label’s historically informed but non-imitative Soul-rich ethos and also a touching remembrance of recently departed giants Shelton, Bradley, and Jones. The set, also available digitally, is out now.

By this point, the specifics of Daptone Records’ endeavors are well-established. Suffice it to say, those who dig the warmth and grit of classic soul, live-band funk, and deep African-American gospel will find much to enjoy in the label’s discography, which has issued over 50 albums and amassed a considerably higher number of 45s since commencing operations in 2001.

That the records have been frequently sampled is testament that they get the sound just right, but the connection of the Dap-Kings (who serve as Daptone’s house band) to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black reinforces the label’s intent to be something more than mere revivalists. That was the raison d’être in 2001, as it was in 2014 when The Daptone Super Soul Revue was recorded, and so it remains in this, the label’s 20th year.

In keeping with Daptone’s knowledgeable thrust, The Daptone Super Soul Revue has its ties to precedent. I’m thinking specifically about Motown’s 1963 album The Motor-Town Revue Vol. 1 – Recorded Live at the Apollo, which offered performances by The Contours, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Marvelettes, Little Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, and The Miracles.

There are significant differences between the two releases, particularly size and scope. The Motown disc is like a hearty plate procured from a smorgasbord, satisfying if only fleetingly exceptional, while Daptone’s set unfurls like a deluxe banquet that’s impossible to properly appreciate in one sitting. In this case the length is not a fault, as it accurately represents the celebratory grandeur of the undertaking.

Like The Motor-Town Revue, but as much of a casual nod (rather than deliberate homage) to James Brown’s classic Apollo-recorded masterpiece from 1963, the Super Soul Revue features a master of ceremonies, namely Dap-King Binky Griptite, who begins addressing the assembled after a general announcement over the Apollo sound system (please silence those digital devices, people) and an explosive opening instrumental workout from the Dap-Kings.

Griptite then proceeds to introduce Saun & Starr, who at this juncture were better known as The Dapettes, having backed their friend Sharon Jones from her 2008 album I Learned the Hard Way forward. Look Closer, Saun & Starr’s debut for Daptone, was still on deck for release; it came out in 2015.

Two of its songs, “Hot Shot” and “In the Night,” are delivered with flipped-gender Sam & Dave-ish verve (not to be reductive) for Super Soul Revue. In between them is the strong “Confess It,” a definite value-add in that it doesn’t appear to have been recorded in studio. At least not yet. Hopefully a second Saun & Starr LP is forthcoming.

Next up is boogaloo-soul jazz Hammond organ combo Sugarman 3 with two from their 2012 album What the World Needs Now. In reality a four-piece led by saxophonist Sugarman, with occasional additional contributions both in studio and live, their tracks here are solid but fly by way too quickly, a circumstance only exacerbated by “Love Went Away”’s rather abrupt fadeout. But such is the nature of revue-style releases, even when they expand to three LPs. Still, there’s enough time that Sugarman and company get to strut their Junior Walker-ish stuff in “Witch’s Boogaloo.”

Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens are represented by three tracks positively drenched in sacred soul (to borrow Bruce Watson’s term), progressing from the funky groove of “Thank You Lord” (heard on their 2014 album Cold World) through the somewhat Stax-era Staple Singers-like “Stranger” (which seems to be another exclusive track) and culminating with the full-on churchy fervor of “Higher Ground” (culled from Shelton and the Queens’ 2004 pre-Daptone CDR It’s All About Love).

The work of Shelton (who passed in February of this year) and the Queens, which included direction and full-band arrangements by pianist Cliff Driver (who left us in 2016) plus contributions by assorted Daptone regulars, definitely contrasts with Super Soul Revue’s other gospel act, The Como Mamas, who grace the Apollo stage with pure a cappella harmony straight from Mississippi.

The studio version of their solitary track here, “Out of the Wilderness,” was released as a single by Daptone in 2014, following up on their full-length debut form the previous year, the exceptional Get an Understanding. The Como Mamas’ 2017 LP Move Upstairs did feature an instrumental component courtesy of a group of Daptoners dubbed The Glorifiers Band, but Super Soul Revue catches them in their raw state, lending a current of Southern roots (Griptite even mentions Fred McDowell) to the label’s predominantly urban flavor.

Sequenced between Shelton and the Mamas is the Menahan Street Band, an outfit known by many for backing the late Charles Bradley in studio on his string of classic albums. But they also cut a pair for Daptone on their own, with their contribution here, “Make the Road by Walking,” the title track to their 2008 debut. It’s solid, expansively executed grooving, smartly arranged but not too sophisto.

For live performances, Bradley is backed by the Extraordinaries, and together they dish a half-dozen killers filling side three of Super Soul Revue and carrying over onto side four. The playing is indeed magnificent, but it’s Bradley, who is absolutely primed for this evening, that makes the deepest impression, combining a raw throated physicality in the tradition of James Brown with stirring emotional appeals recalling Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter (whose “Slip Away” is given a fine reading) and hell, even Blue Notes-era Teddy Pendergrass.

It’s a galvanizing performance that necessitates a shift of gears. Budos Band bring the goods with the funky “The Sticks,” a roller but also a burner (there’s beaucoup wailing guitar), the sort of sound as likely to knock ‘em dead from beneath a festival tent as inside the Apollo. Budos hang in like champs, and then Bradley steps out to join them for the cooking “Ain’t That a Sin.” From there, Antibalas lend a late dose of Afrobeat with the two parts of “Sáré Kon Kon,” beginning with the hand drums and gradually introducing the horns as they work themselves into a funked-up lather, reset, and then repeat.

Next is The Dap-Kings with a short ramp up to Sharon Jones’ nine-track excursion, the highest number of tracks by any contributor, but completely understandable given her role in Daptone’s creative fortunes. The union of singer and band is effectively seamless, and partly through her interactions with the crowd between songs, it becomes apparent that these were very special evenings for Jones.

Why of course, you might be thinking; she’s headlining the Apollo Theater (and also had family in the audience). That assessment is correct, but it’s intensified by how the rise of Jones and Daptone, an inseparable team, was an improbable one, only realized through constant work and an unwavering dedication to an ideal, specifically a renaissance of old-school soul, funk and gospel. Had there been a loss of focus, a slide in the standard of quality, or a slowing of momentum, this album wouldn’t exist.

Side six closes with a heartwarming version of Sly Stone’s “Family Affair,” a big group effort that’s credited to The Daptone Family. In summation, The Daptone Super Soul Revue Live! At the Apollo is consistently enjoyable in its sprawl, but also exhibits a few of the limitations familiar to the revue-style live album on the way to the sustained highpoints of Bradley and Jones. But perhaps just as important is that after 20 years, I still haven’t heard a bad record with Daptone’s name on it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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