Soul blowtorch singer Sam Reed paying tribute to the blazingly dynamic Sharon Jones is so perfect that it sounds obvious.
Over the past couple of years, Reed spiced her solo career and her membership in a swarm of other bands —Mekong Express, Dance Candy, No BS Brass — with possibly the better-than-the-original Janis Joplin cover band, Black Janis, and a memorable, so far, one-off, deep dive into the music of Nina Simone. Jones, a charismatic singer who held her own as the leader of a powerhouse R&B band, is the natural next step.
Sometimes called the female James Brown, Jones generated a primal energy that crossed the great soul bands of the '60s and '70s with robust 21st century modernism. She was a late bloomer, occasionally singing backup on other people's records while working full-time as a guard at New York jails or on armored cars. Her break came when the 40-year-old was the only one of three scheduled backup singers to show up at a Lee Fields session. She did so well covering all the harmonies that the producers decided to record her first single. It was the start of a brilliant, fiercely independent career.
Even after her Grammy-nominated success as the avatar of a soul-funk revival, she stayed loyal to her Brooklyn label, Daptone Records, and her eponymous label band, the Dap-Kings. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she kept performing with undiminished vigor as long as she could. She died in November 2016.
"I never got a chance to see her live," Reed says. "I had another gig when she was here at Innsbrook. It broke my heart. But I've watched countless videos and learned a lot from her style [such as] how to fit in with a band that big."
The sizeable Love Jones ensemble features Reed's longtime guitarist Steven Boone, bassist Gabriel Santamaria, drummer Joshua McCormick, and keyboardist Calvin Brown — augmented by a full horn section including trumpeter Mark Ingraham, tenor and alto saxophonist Garen Dorsey, and baritone saxophonist Peter Leblanc. Backing and occasional lead vocals are provided by Buttafly Vasquez and Tonya Jackson. Reggie Pace of No BS Brass and Bon Iver provides percussion while arrangements are by the talented Devonne Harris.
"This is all [Reed's] doing, and it's our biggest production to date," Santamaria says. "She had the idea, makes the calls, sets the schedule, and writes the charts in case someone didn't practice at home. She is superwoman - the hardest-working band leader, team player and mom that I know."
"I learn tons from her," Brown says, who in a typical Richmond turnabout has Reed as one of his backing players in his just-announced set at the Richmond Jazz Festival. "She is so powerful, a firecracker onstage, with that voice, that energy. She is just like that as a person."
Reed's inspiration for the show was "Miss Sharon Jones," a Netflix documentary she first saw when on tour, in a Chicago hotel room. "[Jones] was a wedding singer, like myself. She never had a radio hit, but she sold out concerts," Reed says. "I didn't know her obstacles until I watched that. Afterwards, I knew I wanted to do this. And I wanted to do it with [James Brown tribute band] the Big Payback."
Putting together a concert like this takes a lot of hard work. It's not just a re-enactment. Reed says that while her singing is very distinct from Jones', backup Tonya Jackson may come closer to sounding like Jones in a showcased song. Everyone has been preparing for weeks.
"We started practicing with just the band," Santamaria says. "When we finally added the horns, I was blown away by how good it sounded. We're all really excited."
Based on the rollicking charm of Black Janis, and the quietly transcendent brilliance of the Nina Simone tribute, Love Jones should easily be one of the most memorable local music nights of the year. S
Love Jones: a Sharon Jones tribute with the Big Payback will be held Friday, July 27. Doors open at 8 p.m. and the show starts at 9:30 p.m. at the Broadberry. Tickets cost $12 in advance and $15 at the door. All ages.