For the garage/soul band Barrence Whitfield and The Savages, rock 'n' roll is a full contact sport.
There’s no separating Barrence Whitfield and physicality. During the mid-‘80s heyday of the band, its garage rock/R&B sound was itself physical, with guitarist and band architect Peter Greenberg scraping and chopping out tactile rhythm parts that drove a band that pushed with a buzzy, punk intensity. Whitfield brought a manic soul shouter’s vocal chops to the group, and even today when he talks, Whitfield’s references are colorfully, even distressingly tangible.
“There’s nothing about music today that makes people want to take their heads and screw it off like the top of a jar of applesauce,” he says.
The reunited Barrence Whitfield and The Savages will spend the weekend in New Orleans, playing Siberia on Friday night, Euclid Records on Saturday afternoon, and Freret Street Publiq House Saturday night.
Whitfield has continued to perform, largely in Europe where edgy American garage rock and R&B still finds a substantial, receptive audience, but The Savages had moved on to other gigs. Greenberg had quit performing entirely and bought land in Taos, New Mexico where he settled down with his family. In recent years, he got the bug again, found a local band and played occasionally. At roughly the same time, Ace Records showed interest in reissuing the first Barrence Whitfield and The Savages album from 1984, which gave Whitfield and Greenberg business to discuss. Whitfield told Greenberg to give him a call if he wanted to play some time. Two weeks later, Greenberg called: “Hey, I think I’ve booked some gigs out in New Mexico.” Soon, they were making plans to play Europe and were joined by Savages’ bassist Phil Lenker along with new drummer Andy Jody and saxophonist Tom Quartulli. They cut 2011’s Savage Kings for Spain’s Munster Records and last year’s Dig Thy Savage Soul for Bloodshot Records.
“You’ve got to get back in the ring and start punching, punching,” Whitfield says.
Dig Thy Savage Soul shows no signs of ring rust nor any desire to mess with what worked. Quartulli’s bar-walking sax is the star on the near-instrumental “Blackjack,” and it helps underline the melody on immediately memorable “Oscar Levant.” The album closes with a hard, literal remake of Jerry McCain’s “Turn Your Damper Down” that cranks up the energy and propulsion without losing the soul. Whitfield has had a cratedigger’s ear for good, cool covers dating back to the first albums. On 1985’s Dig Yourself, they did a raucous version of Smiley Lewis’ “Big Mamou,” and they used to cover live Bobby Marchan’s “Rocking Behind the Iron Curtain.”
Whitfield’s scream has become one of his signatures, so much so that he titled one album Ow! Ow! Ow! When Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler met him, he said, “Oh, you’re the guy that screams.” Whitfield knows and admires his soul screaming lineage - Wilson Pickett, Archie Brownlee of Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Claude Jeter. “All those guys knew how to take the voice and electrify it, like someone was frying catfish,” he says. Still, his favorite screamer was Ian Gillan of Deep Purple. “That guy could scream,” he says with admiration.
For him, the scream is an expression of energy - his other signature. Whitfield will work to move an audience, so much so that he has dropped to the floor and done The Curly Shuffle when that was what it took.
“When you can get people to react, people sweating with their shirts off, you’ve done something,” he says. “When you go out to see music, it’s not like reading the newspaper.” The band plays 80 or so minutes a night and he says he could go longer, but he’s not sure how long he could play before his own energy would flag.
“I can’t keep up with Springsteen, but I’ll give it a shot. But by that time, my audiences would be dead on the ground.”
Family Fish Productions and the Ponderosa Stomp present Barence Whitfield and The Savages, The Gaunga Dyns, and The Lonely, Lonely Knights Friday night at Siberia and Saturday night at the Freret Street Publiq House. On Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m., Whitfield and The Savages will play an in-store at Euclid Records.