Black Audience: Jayanthi Kyle left the church to find a home
It's profane when last call goes up at Palmer's on the West Bank. Apertures tighten abruptly, stomachs lurch into the snot-green quease, the drunks and the junkies in the corners stretch their necks, a What now! panic shoots down the spine of the room. Sometimes, when he sees her out of the corner of his eye, the bartender will call down to Black Audience's lead singer Jayanthi Kyle and ask her to sing before they kick everybody out. Jayanthi will jump up on the bar and serenade the mob with "Wayfarin' Stranger." She starts out low and sad, "I'm just a pooooor wayfarin' stranger/Traveling throuuuuugh this world of woe," before moving into a brighter trot, "I'm only go-gooooiing over Jordan/I'm only go-gooooooiing home."
Usually, it's a happy salutation. "Except once in a while, I'll get somebody black who grew up with the song in the church," Jayanthi says. "And they'll get really upset and say, 'We're trying to have a good time!'" Jayanthi will laugh and shout, "Well, everybody else is having a good time!"
Jayanthi knows "Wayfarin' Stranger" from church, too. Growing up, moving back and forth between her dad's in Maple Grove and her mom's on the South Side of Chicago, she started singing with her older sister when they were four and five years old—first in Baptist churches, and then in Pentecostal and Evangelical congregations. "I learned the songs from my great-grandmother on my mother's side," she says, "But my dad loved them." He would take his girls to Praise Unlimited, a Christian store on Central, to buy taped accompaniments of Christian pop songs. He'd volunteer them to sing in Lutheran youth groups, at old folks' homes, at charity centers. But by the time she was a teenager, Jayanthi felt people weren't listening to the words she was singing anymore. "They would say, 'I love your hair!' or 'You're so funny!' or whatever," she says. "I guess I just didn't feel the love."
The love is there at closing time. "It feels perfect," she says. A couple of years ago, at Palmer's annual summer festival, PalmFest, the Legendary Jim Ruiz himself heard her sing. He had just booked his first gig in six years, and he asked her if she would warm up the crowd for him. But she didn't have a band.
So Black Audience came together in the exact way we assume all West Bank bands come together. Jayanthi is married to Robin Kyle, a Belfast Irishman with a twisted up mustache who used to play guitar in Valet. "I didn't drink, smoke, or swear before I met Robin," Jayanthi says. Robin's little punk rocker brother Luke plays the bodhran, a traditional Irish drum, so he joined, too. And the two brothers drove cab for the same company as Mike Gunther, so Mike was in. And Robin knew Doug Anderson, Spider John's banjo player, from Palmer's. "I would get off overnight shifts at eight in the morning," Robin says in his faded Ulster accent (been in Minnesota for years), "And I would get drunk with a group of alcoholics and muckers that referred to themselves as 'The Breakfast Club.'"
Gunther has since moved on, and now Jon Davis plays bass and Matt Hardy plays the harmonium (an Indian instrument Jayanthi and Robin brought back from their honeymoon in Hyderabad). They're a West Bank band, so each member plays a secondary instrument or two—the spoons, the bones, the bass clarinet. They call themselves Black Audience because, as Robin says, "When the lights are in your eyes, every audience is black." The five boys give Jayanthi a wide acoustic birth, wide enough for her to go big soul on Harry Belafonte covers, old gospel songs, traditional Irish reels, blues numbers, country tunes, and even an original arrangement of a Lebanese prayer.
It's impossible to say what those Lutheran audiences were or weren't hearing when Jayanthi used to sing for them, but when she lowers herself into the first bars of Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately," she changes the song. It's still about power on its way out, but unlike Bob's sarcastic sneer, Jayanthi makes you feel for the Lady—she sounds full of empathy for the Protestant martyr-to-be. Black Audience's "Queen Jane" is another salve for the barman's harsh couplet: "You don't have to go home/But you can't stay here."
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