Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings
State Theatre, Minneapolis
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Sharon Jones has always been a fighter. Like many of her labelmates on Brooklyn's soul-revival record company Daptone, she toiled for years in relative obscurity, working as a correctional officer to pay bills and watching as her bids for stardom were repeatedly shot down by a business that seemed to have passed her by. Even after her career began to take off in her early 40s, Jones never received success on a silver patter, building it instead through years of hard-nosed touring, watching all the while as younger, less singularly talented performers made millions by cribbing from her playbook.
Ms. Jones' resilience was tested again in 2013 when she was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, and she spent the better part of her year in and out of intensive surgery and chemotherapy. Now, a mere four months after her last round of chemo, the indomitable singer returned to Minneapolis for an incredible, cathartic performance.
In the grand Soul Revue tradition, the Dap Kings began the evening with an instrumental show band anthem, riffing handily before guitarist and emcee Binky Griptite introduced Jones' backup singers, the Dapettes, as a warm-up act. The pair have just begun to release music under the moniker of Saun and Starr, and their time behind the wheel was a truly pleasant surprise. While they didn't take up much set time, the two women left a strong impression, taking the classical duet style of a group like Sam and Dave and adding a girl-power garnish.
After an entertainingly hyperbolic introduction from Griptite, the main act was on deck. "She's the brightest star in the Daptone Universe," the guitarist bantered, "110 pounds of Soul! She wanted to be back sooner but she had to take some time off to kick cancer's ass! Ladies and gentleman...Miss Sharon Jones!"
With that, the star herself shot onstage with nary an iota of her previous energy missing, though beyond her constant and ineffable charisma, Jones looked very different from the last the we saw her. With her hair slowly growing back from from a shaved state and a frame that looked a few pounds south of what Griptite advertised, the whole thing could have been troubling if her performance wasn't sensational right off the bat.
Making a huge entrance with lead single "Stranger to My Happiness" back to back with "You'll be Lonely," Jones wasted no time whatsoever gathering the crowd into the palm of her hand. Shimmying across the stage with the spry movements of woman half her age, Sharon is the type of utterly magnetic performer that seems to find the process of entertaining an audience as natural as breathing between notes. Winking sassily at a photog, Jones reeled him in for a kiss without missing a beat of the Dap Kings' precisely charted stings. During the outro to the rare 45 rpm single "Calamity," the singer challenged bassist Bosco Mann (aka Daptone head honcho Gabriel Roth) to a call and response duel on their respective instruments. Sharon won. Of course she did. When it comes to singing, Sharon always wins.
A consistent complaint about the other singers on Daptone is that their output is often heavily reminiscent of other landmark artists in the genre, but Sharon Jones is very much her own animal. While touchstones such as Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross are obviously influential on the singer's delivery, their presence provides mere guidelines, like a well-worn recipe book only checked occasionally for inspiration or specifics. Sharon carries herself with the regal bearing of the former, but their's a flinty intelligence behind her megawatt-smile that speaks of her own life's struggles. After "Now I See," Jones joked about wishing she could whip her missing hair around, but it was quietly obvious that its loss pained her.[page]
This was far from a somber evening. In actuality, Ms. Jones was overflowing with a joy that rang true in her performance. Playfully inviting two women from the front rows onstage to dance along with her to "Not Gonna Cry," Sharon drew from their beaming admiration to galvanize her singing even further. During "Fish in the Dish," she ad-libbed an amusing story about her fishing getaways to New Jersey during her time living in Brooklyn. "Fishing is how Sharon chills out," she joked. Later, Jones wowed the room with a sensational dance medley of her favorite '60s moves ("Sharon don't Twerk!") including the Boogaloo, the Jerk, the Pony, the Funky Chicken, and the Mashed Potato. Needless to say, she knocked ever single one out of the park, and stuck the landing right back into the intimate groove of "Slow Down Love."
Rather than using her recent, nearly deadly bout with cancer as an excuse to give a more restrained performance, Sharon Jones harnessed it as an emotional, gospel-tinged set-piece to close out the encore. Transforming "Get Up and Get Out" into a sprawling, 10-minute-plus epic, Jones began the song with her best Tina Turner impression, paraphrasing the legend's famous spoken intro on "Proud Mary." After doffing her heels to dance the song into an uptempo frenzy, Ms. Jones executed JB-esque fake exit before beginning her story.
"I had my last chemo on New Year's Eve. By January 4 I was back on TV. It was therapy for me. When I was in the hospital with tubes down my throat, I didn't know if I was gonna be here tonight. Then I was worried about coming back too soon, too early, but I'm glad I'm here."
The band's backing began to grow more earnest now, and that mesmerizing gospel rythym became ever more urgent.
"God told me I was to get up and get out back on that stage. He told me to shout that cancer out! Shout that cancer OUT!"
WIth that single word, the Dap Kings pulled the plug from the dam, releasing the pent up emotionality of the moment in a raved-up double time. Jones shook her way all across the State Theatre's wide stage, running back and forth to clasp the hands of her faithful as she waved goodbye, that infectious smile blazing all the while. Yep, she's a fighter all right, but she's a winner too.
Critic's Bias: I'm consistently one of City Pages' biggest fans of the Daptone label, although this is the first time that I've gotten to witness Sharon Jones herself.
Random Notebook Dump: You really can't give the Dap Kings enough propers. They're some of the tightest, most professional soul musicians currently operating and the distinct feel that they give to the material is even more present live.
Dapettes/Saun and Starr:
Gonna Make Time
Stranger to my Happiness
You'll be Lonely
Long Time, Wrong Time
She Ain't a Child No More
We Get Along
Now I See
Making Up and Breaking Up (And Making Up and Breaking Up Over Again)
I'm Not Gonna Cry
I Got the Feeling
Fish in the Dish
People Don't Get What They Deserve
Dap Kings Dance Medley
Slow Down Love
I Learned the Hard Way
100 Days, 100 Nights
Get Up and Get Out