Round about showtime Saturday night, as the backing band the Expressions were churning out the cool and lightly funky sounds of the past, the way serious students from Greenpoint, Brooklyn could do, in their matching paisley tux jackets, out came the front man in his sparkly blue tux jacket.
Lee Fields was taking that long walk down the hall from the Rock and Roll Hotel’s green room to its modest stage, but it might have been a longer walk still, back to the Stax era chitlin circuit. Bringing with him the grit of a lifetime in rhythm and soul, the yearnings of its heartbreak songs, the insistence of its endurance.
It’s a long road, but Fields, at 65 or so, is the standard-bearer of a kind of soul that was swept away by disco and dance records, or was otherwise relegated to the oldies bin.
Like Charles Bradley or the late Sharon Jones, he’s found his niche with an ace bunch of enablers, the six piece Expressions who frame his songs and keep it going as he extends the tunes, extolls the audience to clap along, or breaks it down.
The soul man is an endangered species, and Fields keeps it going, not wth a lot of amped-up funkified flash, but with a smoother mid-tempo, accommodating aching ballads or promises of fidelity.
He’s been compared to James Brown, and had a nickname of “Little JB” for a while, though the band introduces him as “The Soul of Soul Singers.” Fields lent vocals to the Brown bio movie “Get On Up” as well. But there’s not a lot of the Godfather there, truth to tell, except for the remnants of a growly “Yeah!” that he used t punctuate the end of the set, sounding like he’d blow out his pipes every time he tried.
Fields is no precision dancer, either, but he moves around stage so much, the spotlight could barely keep up at times.
Recording since 1969, Fields concentrated largely on his output from this century, filling nearly half of his set from his recent “Special Night” album on Big Crown Records, where a track like “I’m Coming Home” indicated how at home he felt on the stage performing, and casting the evening in terms of the album’s title.
The Rock and Roll Hotel is a small enough place that the usual crowd participation tricks like dividing the crowd into thirds to compete in soulful sing-along didn’t quite work (too much of a blurry line to declare any winner). It was shaky, too, when he asked the dispirited D.C. crowd deep in its malaise, “Are you happy?”
One old track did address just what people were worried about, though, with its lyrics, “Hypocrisy / This new democracy / Fabricated by deception and lies / The truth we seek / shall be told in a week / Stay tuned or it will pass you by.”
The show built to big workouts in songs like “Don’t Walk” and the main set closer “Faithful Man,” perhaps his biggest hit to date.
He returned, shirtless in a blue paisley vest, to sing one of his songs that rewrites the Supremes, “Honey Dove,” a title that rhymes so easily with “Baby Love.”
“Can you feel it?” he implored. We could.
There could scarcely be a less fitting opening act for Fields than The Shacks, a kind of dreamy, whisper rock combo out of the Mazzy Star combo. Whatever 18-year-old Shannon Wise may lack in stage dynamism, the shy singer makes up in presentation, shaved head and black miniskirt. With band partner Max Shager on guitar (and road musicians still trying to catch on to the sound), they have a few fine songs, such as the signature “The Strange Effect” and its lyric “you’ve got a strange effect on me — and I like it.”
Still, there seemed little to tie them to the headliner except also being on Big Crown records.
The set list for Lee Fields & The Expressions Saturday was:
- “Expressions Theme” (instrumental)
- “I’m Coming Home”
- “Work to Do”
- “Talk to Somebody”
- “Special Night”
- “You Just Can’t Win”
- “Let Him In”
- “Don’t Walk”
- “Never Be Another You”
- “My World”
- “Faithful Man”
- ”Last Ride” (instrumental)
- “Honey Dove”