Jones’s soul revue is stuck in overdrive

Boston Globe, November 19, 2005

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are immersed in ’60s soul, down to the band’s stage moves, retro hairstyles, and “young-fogey” outfits. They came to the Middle East Thursday to deliver an old-fashioned, gut-bucket, right-on soul revue. And they did, sort of.

The Dap-Kings play crisp, rump-shaking funk in the spirit of the Stax or Muscle Shoals house bands, on whom they are modeled. Jones, who was a corrections officer before her musical career’s belated takeoff, has a full, throaty voice and a strong stage presence.

The band’s two albums have earned critical acclaim, much of it to the effect that they are too good to be considered merely throwbacks. Still, both the fare and the delivery too often crossed the line between revival and pastiche.

Every aspect of the show was a tad overdone. The band played too long before Jones appeared; guitarist Binky Griptite even sang, poorly, at one point. As MC, he laid on the “And now! Are you ready! For a super! Soul sister!” exhortations way too thick.

The songs, most of them from the recent album “Naturally,” were mainly of the band’s composition, but still sounded like covers, albeit expertly played ones. And the remake of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” also from the album, was simply weird.

It’s been bandied about that Jones and the Dap-Kings are icons of the “underground soul” scene, whatever that is. If this show was any indication, that scene is young, self-conscious, and overwhelmingly white. It felt as if Williamsburg had invaded.

Of course, the entertainment of white audiences by black performers is an American tradition and not inappropriate in itself, especially when the artists are getting properly paid for their efforts.

Still, an odor of exploitation hovered in the room, though its exact source and strength were hard to pin down. Perhaps it had to do with the fetishizing of old-style soul, which often carries the false corollary that there is no good new soul and R&B.

And when Jones brought a few boys from the audience onstage one by one, where they displayed cringe-inducing attempts at dance moves, it brought to mind the question once posed by soul’s greatest diva, Aretha Franklin: “Who’s zoomin’ who?”