Tina Turner has retired and James Brown is dead. Luckily, for fans of highest-energy showmanship and big band soul, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings are ready to rock your world, as they did the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC on Tuesday night. (It was the second of two sold-out shows in the nation's capitol.)
Already noted for her incendiary live shows, this one had the added power of being just a few dates into a new tour celebrating Jones' recovery from a 2013 cancer diagnosis. Last spring, the band's label, Daptone Records, was preparing the August release of a new SJ&TDK album, "Give the People What They Want," when Jones learned the upsetting news.
The scheduled LP drop and supporting tours were immediately put on hold so that all attention could be turned to the singer's treatment and recovery. That Jones and her band are back on the road less than a year later (the album came out last month) is a tribute to modern medicine and her indomitable spirit, which was on full display in a riveting concert that lasted almost two hours.
The evening began with a brief handful of songs from Valerie June, a dreadlocked, Tennessee-raised singer whose unique take on folk music includes elements of Depression-era hillbilly and country blues. Performing with two support players – a drummer and guitarist – while she moved from guitar to banjo, June’s confident, down-home style and idiosyncratic vocals made a good impression on the crowd, despite being mixed in a manner that made them sound harsher than they do on her fine album, “Pushin’ Against a Stone.”
After June’s mostly quiet balladry, it took just a few moments for the full force of the Dap-Kings to bring the Lincoln audience to its feet, where it remained for the full show. It was a carefully orchestrated show – first, the band played some instrumental vamps with one musician/MC stirring up the crowd, then Jones’ two female vocalists had a moment to show their stuff. And finally, about 15 minutes in, with an introduction fit for a queen, Jones herself arrived.
From then on, it was hard to take your eyes off the woman, a feisty, bald fireplug who sashayed, shimmied and shook her tailfeather while belting out a set of collection of raucous R&B, tempered with the occasional slow-burning torch number.
For one early tune, “You’ll Be Lonely,” she pulled a member of the audience on stage for a playful dance, and wound up with a charming partner who met her move for move. Later in the set, she brought up five volunteers – four ladies and one guy - for an extended dance-off, and later still, offered a solo set of lessons in how to frug, pony, twist and swim.
Throughout the night, Jones’ 11-piece band, including a four-man horn section, kept the grooves steady and the playing tight in a satisfying display of high spirits and assured choreography. Among the highlights – a searing take on the title track of 2007’s “100 Days, 100 Nights,” a cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and a few from the new album, like the stomping “Retreat!” and the Detroit-flavored “Stranger To My Happiness.”
Toward the end of the pre-encore set, Jones turned the show into an emotional, near-evangelical account of her recent personal battle, using a testimonial call-and-response style with the band to tell of her diagnosis and fight back to health. Her gratitude was obvious, her joy undeniable and her talent a force that clearly won’t surrender.
If Sharon Jones weren’t already the reigning queen of classic soul, she’d make a hell of a motivation speaker. As she proved once more this night at the Lincoln, she’s one kickass performer, a sheer joy to watch.
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