By Barry Gilbert
This retro but modern take on classic Memphis soul – the grit of Otis Redding, the groove of the MGs, the brass of the Memphis Horns – was just a joy to hear. And I couldn’t help thinking how much poorer we are for the corporatization and lack of adventure in modern radio, as the Bo-Keys reminded me of the days when you could snap on an AM radio and hear Aretha and the Animals, and Sinatra and the Stones, and keep up with the Joneses, Booker T and George. (Repeat after me, St. Louis: Thank God for KDHX 88.1 FM.)
The Bo-Keys have been together as a recording unit for only a decade, but some of the members of this interracial and intergenerational band go back to the glory days of Memphis soul. Co-founder Charles “Skip” Pitts played the signature guitar parts on Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft” and the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing.” Drummer Howard Grimes kept the beat at Hi Records during the heyday of Al Green and can be heard on his great single “Love and Happiness.”
The band performed all three songs last night, with Pitts growling through Hayes’ part and the terrific singer Percy Wiggins standing in for Green and Ronald Isley.
Although the band also performed a wonderful cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” most of the tunes were originals, many from the band’s new CD, “Got to Get Back.” Led by the bedrock rhythm of co-founder and bassist Scott Bomar, and the electrifying guitar and infectious smile of Pitts, the Bo-Keys played two sets of about 45 minutes each and had the audience of about 70 people in Rick and Nancy Wood’s Clayton family room rocking in their seats and occasionally dancing in place.
All of the players impressed with tight and expressive solos, including new keyboardist and aptly named Lotsa Papa, Kirk Smothers on saxophone and Marc Franklin on trumpet. Pitts was a standout on the ballad “Sundown on Beale,” and Wiggins, a singer at Atlantic Records back in the day, was a consistent pleasure, especially on the new “Catch This Teardrop,” which he sings on the CD.
The audience loved these guys, and the band was apparently surprised and unprepared for a demanded encore. But it obliged with a reprise of Wiggins’ “Catch This Teardrop.”
And the Bo Keys loved playing the house concert. Pitts was so impressed with the venue, he said he hoped to start something similar back home in Memphis, and he all but pleaded to be invited back to the Wood House Concerts series.
For me, the Bo-Keys can’t return soon enough.
(Here is a video of the Bo-Keys, with Otis Clay on lead vocal, on the title track of “Got to Get Back.”)