Inspecting the final lineup for Bumbershoot 2007, a favorite staple seems to be missing: a notable soul artist. Over the years, the festival has hosted several of the genre's heavyweights, including Solomon Burke and the godfather himself, James Brown. Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette threw down killer sets in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
This year? Nada. If you want to see a living legend over Labor Day Weekend, you'll have to catch Stevie Wonder at the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery. But that doesn't mean Bumbershoot 2007 lacks soul; it's just a newer shade.
For starters, there's Joss Stone. At just 16 years old, she cut her 2003 debut, The Soul Sessions, under the supervision of Betty Wright (1972's "Clean Up Woman"). The album included accomplished readings of songs popularized by soul greats Carla Thomas, Aretha Franklin, and the Isley Brothers. Since then, this English rose has shared stages with the likes of Brown, Wonder, Staples, and even Patti LaBelle.
But can a skinny white chick from across the pond truly sing soul? Producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd of Atlantic Records certainly thought so. And not only did they captain Dusty Springfield's seminal 1969 Dusty in Memphis, the same team worked with "To Sir, with Love" singer Lulu in Muscle Shoals. (You can hear the wee Scottish lassie tearing up "Feelin' Alright" on Rhino's recent What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves box set.) Short answer: Yes, she can.
Ryan Shaw isn't a lifelong veteran either, but he knows how to play the part. Literally. One of his early gigs was performing chestnuts such as "My Girl" at New York City's Motown Cafe. Like Stone, his debut album, This Is Ryan Shaw, is packed with vintage gems by Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, and Jackie Wilson. The 26-year-old artist and his producers took pains, however, to eschew obvious choices.
"We went through hundreds and hundreds of songs," recalled Shaw earlier this year. "Every time I would go over to record, they would sit me down and play anywhere from between 20 to 30 more songs. And I only recorded the ones that made me smile."
That kind of gut reaction is at the heart of how Toussaint, vocalist for Soulive, defines soul music. "Without trying to sound clichéd, soul really is something that comes from within. It's beautiful because it's uplifting. [The song] can be about some of the worst things you see, the drudgery of society, and yet you still feel uplifted when you hear Curtis Mayfield singing 'Freddy's Dead'... and he's explaining the life of a junkie!"
Even though the New York ensemble is primarily associated with the jam-band scene, they impressed Concord Records enough that the label just issued the group's latest, No Place Like Soul, on the reactivated Stax imprint. Thus far, the youngsters seem to have lived up to that venerable label's reputation. After a recent Stax 50th-anniversary gig in Memphis, Dave Porter (of Sam & Dave) and William Bell lined up to offer kudos. "William Bell, the singer of 'Forgot to Be a Lover,' one of the baddest tunes of all time, was feeling us? That meant everything to me," says Toussaint.
Soul might make allowances for age or pigmentation, but faith—of some variety—seems to be a prerequisite. Both Shaw and Toussaint grew up singing in the church. "To make not just music with soul, but music with lots of soul, you have to have some kind of spiritual base," concurs Wendell Holmes, singer and guitarist for the Holmes Brothers. "It doesn't have to be Christianity."
"When you look into your own being, you realize you are not an entity unto yourself," continues the 63-year-old. "Experiences change from day to day, and that will make your inner being grow, which in turns makes the music grow. And that comes out, through the guitar, the keyboard, and your mouth."
After 30 years of performing together, the Holmes Brothers would seem to be the closest thing to a veteran soul act at Bumbershoot 2007. Except, ironically, Wendell doesn't think the tag fits. Not exactly.
"All music is soul music," he concludes. "Because it comes from the soul. Even though I am a blues/gospel artist, I also appreciate opera and classical. That is soul music, too. If it comes the heart, from real-life experiences, then it is soul."