For this post we’re venturing outside the M25 (yes, it’s a thing) to Cambridge, for the full soul treatment. It’s St Paul & The Broken Bones from BirmingHAM AlabAMa!
Paul Janeway is not just a singer, he’s a straight-up, pure-blooded diva. But when he strides out on stage after an intro jam by the band, he looks less like the soul legends of old and more like the guy who’d turn up with a crane when your car breaks down on the M1. He’s a little tubby (I’m of that persuasion myself, no judgement), he has a very receded hairline, and there are little spectacles perched askew on his nose. The only clue to what’s about to happen is his shoes. They are hella sparkly.
The Broken Bones kick into the whirling funk of ‘Don’t Mean a Thing’, and Janeway grabs the mic stand, giving it an experimental jerk. He stares mysteriously into the middle distance. He pushes his specs up his nose. The music skirls down to a sweet soul groove and Janeway takes a breath.
Then he sings, and the noise… Spectral, powerful, flavoursome, unexpected, scream-worthy, face-melting – you name it, he can do it. It’s astonishing to think that someone can sound like that simply by opening their mouth and pushing air out of their lungs. If the heavenly chorus doesn’t have one of him, I’ll be very disappointed.
It’s not just about the characteristic lead singer, though. While I’ve always felt that on their debut LP, ‘Half the City’, the band’s sound is poorly represented – it’s very thin – live they are muscular and surprisingly loud for an R&B outfit.
Guitarist Browan Lollar (superb name) in particular is infinitely better live than on wax, throwing out massive riffs and feather-light funk staccati with equal grace. They play classic soul, leaving the 1960s formula untouched, and they do it extremely well. If you heard a live recording out of context you’d assume you’d discovered some long-forgotten Motown B-side (which is definitely a compliment). The Cambridge crowd is middle-aged and rather staid, but I found a long-haired Wayne’s World-type person next to me, and we rocked out very happily together.
As the set builds, so does Janeway’s passion. At the peak of Broken Bones And Pocket Change, a heart-rending ballad of loss and destitution, he flings his glasses from his face and kneels at the lip of the stage, eyes screwed shut and head waving. If this seems intense, we haven’t seen anything yet – in an ecstasy of misery, Janeway pulls off his spangly brogues and begins to shout into them. This is a new one on me. The moment teeters on the edge of comedy, but he manages to hold it. We’re persuaded that his shoes deserve a telling, and the whole effect is very memorable – he’s a showman of the old order, a James Brown or a Joe Cocker.
SP&TBB are developing a good relationship with the UK – they tour fairly regularly, and it’s more than worth the outing to see them. For those of us who missed the 60s and 70s heyday of Stax and Motown, Janeway and his troupe of soul brothers are as near as dammit to the real thing. What a voice, and what a show.
St Paul & The Broken Bones are back in the UK playing the Junction, Cambridge and Troxy, London on 4 & 5 July 2017. They will also be performing at the Cornbury Music Festival in Oxfordshire, 7-9 July.
(N.B. This blog was written a few months after the gig, as we backdate some entries.)