Monday, June 29, 2009

Barrence Whitfield back at the MAC in Newburyport

Barrence Whitfield has been something of a hired gun over the past decade, bouncing among wildly divergent projects ranging from the unique rockabilly country soul work with Tom Russell to the rootsy Americana collaboration with ex-Radio King axman Michael Dinallo and Nordic bluesman Vidar Busk known as the Mercy Brothers, to the straight-up JB funk of his continuing collaboration with the Boston Horns. Lost in the musical shuffle, at least on the recorded side of the equation, has been the stuff that made the singer his bones — the soul-informed garage-rock shout-fest of Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. Until now, that is.

The Beverly-based singer is out with his first collection of Savage-like tunes since, if you can believe this, "Ritual of the Savages" back in 1995. Released last month on Blood Red records, "Raw Raw Rough" serves up exactly what the name (which, spoken quickly, sounds like a dog barking) promises. It's a tenacious album that sinks its teeth into you and will not let go, a killer collection, Savage in everything but name (it is, strictly speaking, a Barrence Whitfield album) filled with the kind of tunes that fueled the band's high-energy, and some might say transforming, shows from back in the day: material from the dusty corners of funk history, like Nathaniel Mayer's "I Want Love and Affection Not the House of Correction," lost garage classics like the Sonics' "Strychnine" or the Kingsmen's "Long Green" and obscure, sax-driven rave-ups like Barry Darval's "Geronimo Stomp" — as well as some blasts from the past for fans with long memories, like the rocker "Kissing Tree," part of the band's sets for years, but never recorded until now.

As different as the material is for the North Shore singer, in a back-to-the-future kind of way, it also underlines his unique position as part musicologist and as the slightly off-kilter Frank Sinatra of the boomer era, an impeccable interpreter of the great-but-obscure American rock 'n' roll songbook — a comparison that amuses him, but he accepts. Essentially, he says, the music "is my record collection — the music that grabbed me by the neck and wouldn't let go until I absorbed it." The album was recorded three years ago, but has been collecting digital dust while the Portland, Oregon, label sorted out publishing details and dealt with the usual headaches and delay. It was officially released in April.

Now the bad news. If you're hoping to see him, you've got to move quick. He'll be playing a July 4 date with the Mach-2 edition of the band — saxophonist Dave Sholl, guitarist Milton Reder, bassist Dean Casell and drummer David Roy — at the Maudslay Arts Center in Newburyport. After that, he's off for a tour in Finland and a recording date — as a hired guy — with the Spanish band Petti. His next local date will be Sept. 19, playing with the Savages in a fundraiser for the Salem Jazz and Soul Festival. That date, however, will be the first public performance of material from "Raw Raw Rough," which has a complietely different line-up. The Newburyport show will be "a Barrence's greatest hits thing." Which isn't all that bad. And if you keep your eyes peeled, you might be able to locate a copy of the new album.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Barrence Whitfield and the Savages perform July 4 at the Maudslay Arts Center in Newburyport. Tickets are $20 for patio seating, $18 for a spot on the lawn. Children age 12 and younger can can watch from the lawn for free. The gate opens at 6 p.m. The music starts at 7 p.m. Call 978-499-0050 or log onto for tickets or directions. You can buy "Raw Raw Rough" at or the iTunes store. For more information, log onto or The MAC is located just past the main parking lot for Maudslay State Park, Curzon Mill Road, Newburyport.

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