Laura Rain and the Caesars
Real R&B–and I don’t mean what’s on the charts today–often seems embalmed by tradition. There’s absolutely a place for reverence and strict authenticity, but qualities like imagination and bravado seem to be in too short supply when it comes to musicians who know their history; hence the excitement when artists like Ryan Shaw, Little Jackie, Eli “Paperboy” Reed, and Ricky Fanté appear. We can add Laura Rain and the Caesars to that short list. The only thing retro about this band is the record collections I imagine Laura Rain and George Friend, who co-wrote all the material, to possess.
They have a rare ability to evoke vintage soul, funk, and R&B styles while sounding utterly fresh. The set opens with “Sunset,” a head-turning amalgam of rapid-fire lyrics, funky horns, guitar chank, and popping drums. “Bus Stop” is a slamming, Stax-inflected burner with enough energy for five hit singles. “My Love” nails a late-‘70s feel with phase-shifted guitar, a disco-fied bass line, and a smoking organ solo, but it’s smarter than anything that charted back in the day. Two favorites couldn’t be more different: with its cool pulse and strong melody, “I Don’t Wanna Play” suggests the vibe of a lost Family Stone classic, especially when the horns, dominated by trumpet, sneak in at the halfway mark. And they don’t make them like “This Old House” any more–a shame, given its sophisticated, laid-back soulfulness (somewhat in the vein of the Grover Washington Jr.-Bill Withers hit, “Just The Two Of Us”), the jazzy octaves on guitar, and a story with a message.
Electrified includes enough bluesy fare to satisfy all but the hardest-hearted purist. The title track, a blues strut with a strip-joint vibe, features hard-riffing horns and a taut guitar solo. “No More” references Howlin’ Wolf’s hypnotic stomps, Hubert Sumlin’s slinky guitar, and John Lee Hooker’s patented stutters. Swampy guitar from the Memphis-Muscle Shoals axis, churchy organ, and a Stones-y swagger inform the deep soul ballad “Four Long Years.” The slow-burning “No Good Love” puts a dramatic, minor key funk spin on soul blues. “Lonely” is a terrific, upbeat rocker fueled by horns, powerhouse drums, and layered guitars.
The players come from the ranks of Detroit’s elite musicians. Guitarist Friend, whose long resume includes the hip blues gem Looka Here!, has toured the world with the likes of Janiva Magness and Robert Gordon. On keyboards, “Philharmonic” Phil Hale brings long experience working with artists from the worlds of funk (George Clinton), jazz (James Carter, Marcus Belgrave), and blues (Thornetta Davis). Ron Pangborn (Was/Not Was) is the perfect drummer for this group. Rick Beamon (additional drums/percussion) and three horn players–James O’Donnell (trumpet), John Paxton (trombone), and Johnny Evans (saxophones)–round out the ensemble.
The band is hot, the arrangements first-rate, but you won’t believe Laura Rain. Although classically trained as a soprano, any trace of fustiness is long gone; her singing is raw and straight-from-the-heart passionate. Lines are caressed, worried, torn apart. She has incredible range and makes effortless glides between registers. A host of shadings, from husky to raspy to nasal to full-bodied to infinite varieties of scream, and incredible melisma, are under her precise control. For all that, unlike so many latter-day divas who seem to sing everything but the note they intend to–in essence, offering effects at the expense of affect–with Laura Rain, it’s all about expressiveness, fire, and feeling.
I’m not generally given to predictions, but it is hard to think that, given half the requisite lucky break, Laura Rain won’t be a star. Her bio likens her to Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin; I compare her to a force of nature. No one is doing what she is. Her style satisfies in spades the craving for the Big Gesture entrenched in the rock-oriented audience, without sacrificing the purposefulness and class needed to engage listeners from the soul and blues side. While the spirits of such legends as Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Sly & The Family Stone, Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, Prince, and the Parliament-Funkadelic coalition shine through the grooves of the Caesars’ first long-player, don’t bother dusting for prints or swabbing for DNA: Nothing here is an overt lift, nor even an unmistakable homage. Instead, while clearly informed and inspired by soul and R&B styles dating, roughly speaking, from the years between 1965 and 1985, Electrified is vital music for these times.
I purchased the digital files of this album at http://laurarainthecaesars.bandcamp.com/album/electrified. CDs are now available at amazon.com and cdbaby.com, while digital downloads are offered at those sites and via iTunes.