Old school Lee Fields headlines the Echo
By Bliss Bowen 05/17/2012
A bona fide funk and soul veteran, Lee Fields is a sharp-dressed product of the old school, the one that mandated that if people are going to plunk down their hard-earned cash to see you perform, you’d damn well better bring your best to the party and give them their money’s worth. It’s a lesson younger acts like Ryan Shaw and Vintage Trouble are wisely emulating.
All of them are benefitting from the soul renaissance of recent years, although they’re marketing themselves to different pockets of the pop audience. Shaw has tempered the excited, gospel-raised soul shouting of his 2007 debut, and is tailoring his image and Sam Cooke-style vocals for uptown fans likely to appreciate the romantic slow jams on his new album “Real Love.” Vintage Trouble successfully ride the line between classic R&B and rock ‘n’ roll in their electric live sets, and are likewise mixing contemporary attitude with old-school sartorial flair. Fields, meanwhile, continues to favor silky suits and a respectful demeanor onstage, and puts on a crowd-pleasing show as he’s been doing since the early 1970s.
Back then, he was nicknamed “Little J.B.” due to the overwhelming influence of funk godfather James Brown on his sound and performance style. Over the ensuing decades, Fields has gradually made himself over into an impassioned soul singer. Fronting a well-dressed ensemble of horn players, guitarists and a crack rhythm section, he strides behind the monitors, sweating profusely as he pleads and croons to the dreamy-eyed women in the front row. It’s a stylistic throwback to the 1960s and ’70s, yet it works surprisingly well. As they do on his recently released “Faithful Man” album, whose warmth and seductive sound evoke classic Al Green hits, Fields and his band maintain a hard edge that connects with contemporary audiences.
His vocals are tough, with little gratuitous embellishment — stylized, sure, but delivered by a pro who understands the power of phrasing to tease out lyrical nuance. Many singers are skilled at expressing emotion, but get so lost in their own insistence on being heard that they neglect to find common ground with their fans. Fields and his music are still moving because he keeps it honest and keeps reaching out to connect with listeners. It’s another old-school trait, and all to the good.
In a month in which we’ve lost Memphis Horns saxophonist Andrew Love, Bo-Keys guitarist Skip Pitts and legendary Booker T. & the MG’s bassist Duck Dunn, it’s heartening to see someone keeping soul music alive without sacrificing any grit.
Lee Fields & the Expressions headline at the Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park, 8 p.m. Saturday; $30. Also on the bill: Cody Chesnutt, Naytronix. Info: (213) 413-8200. leefieldsandtheexpressions.com