Soul Survivors

For years, local R&B's Best Kept Secret have stayed true to their name

With a new lineup and a professionally produced album to match, Best Kept Secret landed a temporary Monday-night house gig at the Blue Nile, where they were able to tighten their sound and gather a small crowd of enthusiastic regulars. But their weekly draw failed to grow, so they pulled up their stakes and sought new venues for their jazzy brand of soul. "People sit down to watch us play," Dercks says. "That's a problem with club owners. We see an audience having fun. They see a crowd of people staring at the stage and not drinking. We're not really a dance band."


Tell that to the five-year-old girl engaged in a perpetual camelwalk throughout Best Kept Secret's gig at the Quest on Labor Day afternoon. Just off the main drag of the Mill City Music Festival, tucked away in the inhospitable darkness of the club formerly known as Glam Slam, Best Kept Secret live up to their name once again. Outside, preparations are under way for the closing ceremonies presided over by the Artist himself, and his numerous musical affiliates are scattered throughout stages along Hennepin Avenue. Packed into a fenced-off parking lot to see the Time, nostalgia besotted fans wriggle as funkily as space permits. A phalanx of bodies stands between latecomers to the main stage and the Artist's first warm up act, Alexander O'Neal.

Stepping out of the Mist: Rhonda Johnson, Kathleen Bradley, and Kym Johnson of Best Kept Secret
Stepping out of the Mist: Rhonda Johnson, Kathleen Bradley, and Kym Johnson of Best Kept Secret

Best Kept Secret's performance is a bit more cozy, and anyone who has accidentally stumbled across the gig might mistake the few dozen seated listeners for a private party--not that anyone is likely to stumble into the Quest at 2:30 p.m. on a Monday anyway. The groove in which their preteen fan has lost herself isn't exactly gritty; like much contemporary R&B, it's as much comfort food as soul food. And like many accomplished musicians free to lick their chops, the Secret keepers occasionally indulge in too much slick fusion, negotiating chromatic scales that sound corny to rock-hardened ears. Those vibelike synths and tricked-up rhythms are steeped in the cocktail lounge--not the campy, leopard-print version acceptable to irony majors, but the relaxed Friday-evening air of supper-club sociability popular among the black middle class.

Still, this is funky stuff, and the sisters, alternating vocals, do their work with assured grace. Though the group may be linked to Paisley Park by a fluke of geographical and chronological proximity, a stray Earth, Wind & Fire cover situates them more specifically. The band plies restrained funk at its most innovative, embracing virtuosity as a display of open-ended possibility, not a pointless show of dexterity.

As Rhonda's magnificent, church-inflected solo testifies, however, this band is just as in touch with the ecstatic elements of soul's gospel roots. Strains of that sound and an attendant spirit of self-determination intertwine on "Don't Lay Down." Here Kathleen sings, "Good things do come to those who try"--because she believes it, because it seems empirically self-evident to those who have tried and to whom good things have come as a result. She also sings it because such sentiments provide necessary assurance to those still waiting for good things to come. And there's nothing corny about that.

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